West Valley Preps
They knew they were better than this.
But what is the potential of the Valley Vista basketball Class of 2019? Even in its final weeks of playing together, the boys results are all over the map.
The Monsoon pushed No. 4 ranked Chanler Hamilton (6A) on its home court before losing 39-38 and hung with last year’s runner up Phoenix Mountain Pointe. They also lost to No. 26 Liberty at home and No. 24 Tolleson on the road.
From the outside, the 13-11 team ranked No. 21 in 6A this year does not seem all that different from the 2017-18 team that finished 11-15 and was No. 23. Inside the program, however, the atmosphere is completely changed.
“I’m glad the younger kids — the JV and freshmen — they’ve got something to go to. We had to go through a struggle for them. I’m not even worried about it,” senior guard King Thurman said.
Much of the difference, they say, starts with new head coach Ben Isai. For more than a decade, Isai was a part of the Valley Vista community and built a reputation as a youth club basketball coach.
Isai watched the program from afar before serving as the Valley Vista JV coach last year. Of the seniors, he said he knew Josh Holloway the longest, but Sidney-Michael Thomas, Josiah Jacson and Thurman as well.
“Now you’re seeing the qualities they’re lacking and in the club world, it’s a little bit different. In high school it’s a bigger bond, you’re making sure their grades are on point, their behavior is on point and that they’re involving themselves in the community and becoming good citizens,” Isai said. “I do believe a lot of these kids get used in the club world for their talents. I think a lot of high school coaches have the best interest of all 12 of the kids — not just one — although there are some great club coaches as well.”
This group popped on the radar two years ago, showing flashes on a 9-15 team. Then-sophomore Josh Ursery and junior Cedric Bridges were focal points but both transferred that summer — Ursery to Liberty and Bridges to Avondale Westview.
A slight improvement under former coach Adrian Orona was enough to make the play-in game and lose to Gilbert, largely thanks to a late five-game winning streak.
Through those years, the success or failure of the Monsoon hinged on a lot of one-on-one play.
“It’s about getting kids to buy into the program. Not everybody bought in. Some guys came every day to work but others were messing around. Coaches didn’t correct them on that. We weren’t like a team,” Thurman said.
And at this point, Thurman really was not part of the team
.A year later, Thurman is the Monsoon’s leading scorer at 14.8 points per game. His turnaround, however, goes far beyond the box score.
“He’s probably my best player on the floor, but I would say off the floor too,” Isai said. “He struggled last year with academics and behavioral but he changed everything around. It’s unbelievable. He’s been able to make such a big impact, not only as an individual but as a human being and a teammate.”
Kam Thorn is the other senior reintroduced to the mix this season. At 6-5, he teams with junior Curtis Nichols to add some much-needed length to a team led by — in essence — four guards.Early on, Thorn looked like a potential casualty of the coaching change.
“We had a talk and he almost quit because he I wasn’t giving him enough playing time. He came to me and said he was frustrated and wanted to do more. I can work with that,” Isai said.
While Valley Vista basketball is not going to suddenly dump it into the post and wait for a double team, Thorn said he is happy to carve out a niche.
“I finally get a chance to prove myself and work within the offense,” Thorne said.
The other three top seniors knew Isai a bit better.
Holloway said he first new the coach in eighth grade. At times, it’s hard to get past criticism from Isai but Holloway said he has learned from it.
“At the same time I understand why he’s doing it and he’s making me a better player,” Holloway said. “He’s changing a lot of things in this program. We’re blessed to have him as a coach.”
From Isai’s perspective, the lack of structure and sometimes stuttering response to running a patterned offense can lead to some tough love.
He is also proud of the strides the seniors have made academically.
“These kids need a different type of love and structure. But looking back, they played well. We’re struggling right now with this they lack from two years of not being able to learn,” Isai said.
Senior Josiah Jackson is a steady, versatile presence — almost the quiet conscience of the group. At 5-11 he also is one of the team’s leading rebounders.
“Josiah will grab rebounds and play hard. He’ll do everything you ask of him. He’s a really hard worker. We’re trying to get him to college as well — he’s got an offer from a college in Minnesota,” Isai said.
Holloway has spent most of career as the go-to wing for breaking the opposing defense down.
This year, Isai said, learning to do more of the little things and is rounding out his game.
“Josh has that killer mentality but he can kind of be a loose cannon. This year he’s making better decisions. He’s got some colleges looking at him now that are loving they way he’s playing,” Isai said.
Holloway leads with 5.4 rebounds a night and contributes 11.1 points a contest.
As for Sydney-Michael Thomas? He is simply the engine of the team.
The 5-7 dynamo averages 14 points a night and is tied with Thurman as the team leader in assists. Plus, Thomas provides several attributes that cannot be measured by stats.
“Syd’s a leader. What he brings to the table is that level of composure. He saves us at times,” Isai said.
Thomas said the adjustment has been easy.
“He was the coach my summer after my sophomore year. It wasn’t hard to transition because I had a coach that was like him,” Thomas said.
While things are better, some old problems rear their head in close losses. Eight of the 11 defeats have been by 10 points or less, which Isai chalks up to poor decision making at the end and the tendency to go one-on-one.
He also said that when Valley Vista basketball plays non-rivals like Ironwood, Hamilton and Mountain Pointe, their games are much better because the emotional component is not overwhelming.
“We could have won region had we beat La Joya and Shadow, or at least been in competition with Shadow because they’re playing really well right now. But we’re in a good place,” Isai said. “I promise you, if we are able to maintain what we’re doing now and even become the No. 24 seed, we are going to shock a lot of people in the playoffs.”