There may not be a trophy at the end. But there are games.
And that’s better than what Laveen Cesar Chavez faced in January, when the Arizona Interscholastic Association gave the green light for a winter sport season earlier this year.
The Phoenix Union High School District was one of a handful of Valley school districts that said no, that it wasn’t ready to return to sports participation with the COVID-19 metrics still high in its area.
There were tears and some outrage, many student athletes feeling left out as as they watched other schools celebrate victories and March state championships in basketball, soccer and wrestling.
With daily infection numbers now way down and vaccinations on the way up, the district has allowed for an alternative winter sports season that began with the first games on April 4, with district schools competing against each other.
Cesar Chavez (8-0) is halfway through a 15-game basketball season that may not have a tournament with a champion awarded at the end, but is better than not playing at all. There are fans. Players don’t have to wear masks while competing. And only one varsity team and no freshman or junior varsity teams.
‘Blessed to be playing’
This week Cesar Chavez is cramming in four games.
“It’s too much,” new coach Joe Esposito said. “It’s not enough practice time, video work. But it’s reward them and giving them something they lost. I’m glad the Phoenix Union allowed us to do that.”
Chavez’s schedule doesn’t include South Mountain, which was expected to have the best boys basketball team in the PXU this winter. Head coach Jeremy Soria, upset over the district canceling the AIA winter season, resigned and moved to New Mexico.
Chavez is the only PXU school posting its game results, statistics and schedule on MaxPreps, which is what the AIA uses to formulate playoff seeds.
“It’s about the kids,” Esposito said.
Joe Esposito, head coach of Cesar Chavez High School’s basketball team, talks about how the players are handling an alternative season.
When Esposito moved from Las Vegas last summer, leaving the college ranks after 34 years, to replace the only basketball coach Chavez ever had, Gary Lee, he wasn’t going to let the virus derail his vision of continuing to evolve the most consistently successful boys basketball program in the district over the last two decades. Even with most players leaving or deciding not to play.
“We did online workouts every morning at 6,” Esposito said, while other school districts were full throttle into January and February games. “That gave me an opportunity to grow as a team, build a culture, getting guys to show up. It kind of gave a feel for who’s committed, who wants to be part of the program.
“It started way bigger and whittled itself down. But we’re just lucky and blessed to be playing games.”
This week, Chavez’s cram session of games isn’t putting a damper on anybody’s spirit. Yeah, they’re not getting the practice time in.
“But it’s rewarding them and giving them something they lost,” Esposito said. “I’m glad the Phoenix Union allowed us to do that.”
Locked in arms
Before every game, when they come out for warmups, the Chavez players lock arms and run half the court together and run back, before breaking into layup lines.
It’s a unifying exercise. Esposito is active on social media, using #BAM, which stands for, “Building a monster.”
“That’s what it’s all about, making it the strongest program we can make it,” he said.
The building blocks are 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Lavon Domino and freshman point guard TyQuan Solomon, who both came from other schools this year — Domino from Glendale Apollo and Solomon from Phoenix Camelback.
Domino averaged 18.3 points through the 8-0 start, Solomon 12 points, five assists, 4.6 rebounds and 4.7 steals.
“Playing hard,” Domino said is the motivation while playing away from the AIA spotlight. “We want to win every game. Go 15-0.”
Solomon said he didn’t feel left out while other were playing in the winter.
“It’s just growing, getting ready for the next season,” Solomon said.
Esposito doesn’t have a senior on the team. He would have one, but Ravion Hodge suffered a knee injury that is keeping him out. Hodge, who averaged 13 points as a junior when Chavez made a run to the 6A semifinals, would have been the leader of a team comprised mainly of freshmen and sophomores.
None of the current players were in a varsity game at Chavez last season.
“We’re growing a program,” Esposito said. “We’re building a new program. And we’re preparing for the future. Our starting five tonight, four guys weren’t at Chavez last year.
“We’re a whole new program, a whole new team. We lost a lot of guys. Some guys who didn’t leave didn’t even meet me face-to-face. They just decided to leave. That’s unfortunate. I wish some of them would have stayed and given me the opportunity to meet, because I believe I could bring a lot to the young men and help them.”
Esposito has a large Rolodex of college basketball coaches, including Tubby Smith, who he helped coach at Memphis.
One of his main goals is finding college opportunities for players, developing talent that can reach the next level.
“They’ve embraced the process,” Esposito said. “It’s going to take time. It’s about a culture. It’s about doing it every day. Winning on the court. Winning off the court. zthe classroom. Winning at home. Relationships. All those things we want to try to bring to this program.”
Chavez is treating this time to play as if it was in the middle of the AIA season, but there is no charge for specators to attend games, which are held like any other season. There is a PA announcer, music, the national anthem, pregame intros, signs on the wall showing support of the team, referees.
Esposito is building a student section he calls, “Champions Chaos Corner.”
And his team’s efforts off the court are just as important, Esposito said.
“We’re going to take care of our players,” Esposito said. “We’re going to be strong on the academic side. We have study hall. We have tutoring. We do everything we can to make sure they’re academically sound. Last semester, we had a 3.0 GPA as a team. That’s important to me. I’m all about academics, I’m all about doing the right thing. Teaching them life-long lesson, how to set a table, how to put a tie on for an interview, how to respect people, how to respect women, opening a door for someone. Yes sir, no sir. All the things they need to learn to go out and be great citizens.”
Domino sees the light at the end, that Chavez will come out even stronger on the other side of COVID.
“We want to keep up the history of the Champions,” Domino said. “Just keep it up.”
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