By Tom Danehy
WHEN THE SALPOINTE Lancers take the court at America West Arena at 5 p.m. Thursday, February 22, in semi-final action in the Class 5A state basketball tournament, it will be a first in many ways for the school and most of the players.
In the nearly 50 years of Lancer basketball, it's the first time Salpointe's ever made it this far in the state championship tournament. As a matter of fact, it's the first time in nearly a decade that any Tucson team has made it this far. Local Class 4A schools have done quite well in recent years, but the 5A dance has been Phoenix-only throughout the '90s.
Some of the Salpointe players have never even been in the Arena, seeing as how the Phoenix Suns sell out every home game and it's not really all that much fun to make the two-hour drive to watch a bunch of Phoenix teams play in the state tournament.
When they take the court, it will mark an ascension to national power status that was virtually unheard of just three short years ago. That's when longtime Salpointe coach Tim Flannery announced his retirement and Lancer Athletic Director Carl Brunenkant and Principal Father Leo McCarthy took a chance on Brian Peabody.
Brian had great credentials coming in. His first-ever year of coaching at the varsity level, he won the Class 1A state title at Green Fields Country Day School. The next year, with virtually a whole new squad, he made it back to the state championship game, where the Griffins lost to Clifton.
He then switched over to St. Gregory, a school which had never even made the state playoffs in nearly 20 years of existence. He took a team with only one senior on it, went 26-3 and reached the state Final Four before losing to eventual state champion Northwest Community Christian by three points.
He then moved over to Salpointe, where his arrival was greeted with everything from skepticism to derision from parents and students alike. His first year, he endured a steady stream of boos and catcalls from a very vocal group which attended home and away games. That first team didn't make the state playoffs, a first and only for Peabody.
But then last year, the Lancers won the 5A South regular-season championship and division tournament crown, the first time in Salpointe history that a team had won both in the same year (they repeated that feat this year). They reached the state quarter-finals where they lost to eventual state champion Mesa Mountain View.
Most of the boobirds were gone by the start of this season, and when the Lancers rattled off 16 straight to start the year (including a rousing win over nationally-ranked Shadow Mountain), those who were left over went into permanent hibernation.
Salpointe is now 29-1 (its lone loss was at Canyon Del Oro) and guaranteed its best season ever. But they have two games to win if they're going to meet their season goal of winning the school's first-ever basketball crown.
Thursday's opponent, Corona Del Sol, features last year's state Co-Player of the Year, Lamont Long, a 6-foot-3 guard who is every bit as good as the more-heralded Mike Bibby of Shadow Mountain. Should Salpointe win Thursday, they most likely will have a rematch with Shadow Mountain on Saturday night. Salpointe is the only Arizona team to beat Shadow Mountain this year.
One person on the Salpointe squad who has experienced America West is starting center Brian Smith. The 6-foot-7 senior was a starter as a freshman on Peabody's St. Gregory team. After Peabody left for Salpointe, Smith played one more year at St. Gregory before transferring to Salpointe. He made All-State last year and is a sure bet to be first team All-State this year.
Smith is a somewhat atypical prep jock in that he carries a 4.3 grade-point average (on a 4.0 scale, weighted for advanced honors classes). Soft-spoken and slyly funny, Smith is described by Peabody as "the absolute hardest-working kid I've ever coached. Ever."
On many occasions, I myself witnessed that work ethic in action. Summer days are brutal at Salpointe, where the air conditioning doesn't work all that well, and it often isn't even turned on so the players can get in a good workout. Smith's days would start at around 7:15 a.m. with weight-lifting. Then from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. he'd attend Peabody's summer basketball camps, where he would work his butt off. The rest of the afternoon he'd spend at shooting drills, then he'd play in one or two leagues a night.
When the leagues ended around 10 at night, Peabody and I would be sitting around playing dominoes because Smith had asked the coach if he could shoot for another hour or so in the gym.
What coach is going to tell a kid like that no?
Anyway, all that hard work paid off in a big way for Smith, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer kid. Brian's got the world on a string. His grades are tops, he's All-State in basketball, he's already signed a college scholarship at the University of San Diego and he's got a great girlfriend named Paty Badiuk (pronounced, and stay with me here, Pah-tee Buh-dook).
Paty is a softly pretty blonde sophomore from Mexico who's on the varsity volleyball team. Oddly enough, her twin sister, Elena, is the girlfriend of 6-foot-10 Brian Stewart, who should be the star center of next year's Lancer team.
I promised Smith I would tell the story about him and the girl from Buena, a classic tale of love at first sight in which he somehow managed to overturn a table, destroy St. Gregory's entire scoreboard system and end up lying on his back, looking up the girl's shorts, but there just isn't enough room here.
Perhaps another time.
Let's all root for Salpointe tonight. Even if you don't like the Catholic school (or Catholics, for that matter). Just look at it as another chance to thumb our noses at Phoenix. Always a worthwhile venture.
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