West Valley Preps
Like all mergers between competitors in the same field, the on-court union of the Paradise Honors and Arizona Charter Academy boys basketball began with some mistrust and culture clashes.
Arizona Charter closed its high school in May and boys basketball was its most successful sport. Four former Bulldogs, including the top three scorers — Josh Hawkins, Ian Jackson and John Jackson — transferred to the other charter school in Surprise.
Former rivals for West Valley small school supremacy with different approaches to the game were thrown together.
“Ian and John fit in pretty quick. Those two guys love playing basketball. Nothing else really matters. Just give them a ball, put them on a court and they’ll play hard,” Paradise Honors basketball coach Zach Hettel said. “Josh was a little bit harder to get on board. Him and I had a nice conversation after a game this summer. I told him — we have a sign right in the weight room door that tells you if you’re not going to do what’s being asked of you, then we don’t want you here. It took Josh a while, because at ACA they ran the show for themselves and did what they wanted to do. Once Josh saw that he wasn’t going to get to do what he had done before, he kind of fell in line. That’s when it all changed. Those guys, whether the say it or not, kind of look to Josh because Josh is more opinionated.”
Paradise Honors spent the summer playing against big schools in the Central High School league and in the Summer 64. And it started to get on the same page as the four ACA players joined the Panthers core seniors — post Jared Perry and wing Sohn Sims.
Hawkins admitted the summer was an eye opener.
“Honestly, when I first got here, my mindset at first was ‘Me, me, me.’ Coming from the school I came from, there was maybe four solid players. When I got here, I didn’t realize everybody could play. Then we started connecting, and not just in practice, but in a lot of team chemistry building things,” he said.
Hettel said the summer work and an AIA rule change opening up fall practice helped accelerate their learning curve.
And they haven’t slowed down since. Paradise Honors basketball is 17-1 and a top contender for the 2A state title, averaging 77 points per game and blowing the doors off opponents by an average of 40 points.
“That’s when we got all that anger out. We were rivals and didn’t want to play with each other. but we knew us coming together like that was something beautiful. It was dangerous, especially being in 2A. We can compete with anyone. Ever since mid-summer our chemistry has been there and we’ve bought in to what coach wanted to do,” Sims said.
Even Sims faced an adjustment, missing last year with an ACL tear. Perry started high school at Liberty and transferred to Paradise Honors as a sophomore but did not play until last season.
So he was familiar with the Panthers crop of shooters — seniors J.J. Ramirez and Junior Madore and juniors Charlie Rogers and Chris Relihan. But that group’s first time with the three ACA wings and Sims, as well as freshman point guard Jalen Scott.
“There’s these new kids that came in and had a lot of minutes last year. That was a big thing from the returners — there’s these new guys coming in and they don’t work as hard as we’re used to working, yet they’re playing. We don’t feel like you’re treating them the same way. And it’s true, I wasn’t. They had years to adapt and these guys had only been here two or three weeks. I think that sometimes as a coach you have to set your standard, but then understand they’re going to screw up and let you down. But can you give you the opportunity to get better and prove you’ll follow suit,” Hettel said.
Perry was the key new piece to the roster last season, along with fellow forward Salim Bayo and only point guard Adrian Van Cleaf was back from the prior season.
But he said this year is different mostly because of the talent level.
“It’s completely different. The guys have a lot more potential. We tried to become an actual team and think more about of each other,” Perry said. “I think we really came together during our first home game when we were sharing the ball and playing as a team. We were able to run it up.”
Hettel said Perry and Sims weren’t used to being vocal leaders, like Van Cleaf was the year before.
Finally, before the season, Perry threw himself into the role.
“I was definitely slow starting at first. But during one practice I reached a point where I wasn’t going to take it anymore. We were going to have to be a team and if I had to be that voice I was going to be it. Ever since then, I’ve been a voice of leadership,” Perry said.
For Ian Jackson and his younger brother, the new school was more of an adjustment than the new team.
“We always felt comfortable because we always knew kids here. We played club ball with some of them and we were buddies,” Ian Jackson said. “I think we all have a great connection. We all know how to play with each other. We all hang out outside of school which makes it better. We always go to Jared’s house and have little get-togethers to bond.”
On the court, Paradise Honors basketball resembles a hydra with five players Perry, Hawkins, the Jacksons and Sims, averaging between 8 and 14 points a game.
Along with the seniors assuming leadership, Hettel said he’s proud of Hawkins, who is seeing the benefits of more structure. The coach said he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.
“We’ve got a little bit of everything. We can throw speed and length at you. If you want to pack it in, we’ll throw some shooters at you that will stretch the floor. The next thing you know we’ve got those guys running the floor again,” Hettel said.
That includes a point guard in Scott who shows maturity beyond his years in running a halfcourt offense. And three or four deadeye shooters from deep off the bench.
And more than 41 in-game dunks thus far.
“It’s super fun,” Ian Jackson said.
Add it up, and the mix is capable of lifting a trophy. That was the sentiment of every Paradise Honors basketball player interviewed — and their coach.
None of them said it will be easy. Rancho Solano Prep looms across the Valley in Scottsdale with a similarly stacked roster for a small school.
Defending champion Gilbert Christian is starting to gel, as is Scottsdale Christian. And two powerhouses outside the Valley — Whiteriver Alchesay and Pima — are primed for a title push after making the semifinals last year.
But one of them will have to knock off this new Surprise hoops superpower.
“We’re pushing for the state championship. There is no other goal. It’s state championship or bust,” Hettel said.