Centennial basketball riding high as top seed
At 10-1, ranked No. 1 in 5A and having just dispatched defending-champion Ironwood 78-49 mere days ago, coach Randy Lavender of the Centennial Coyotes boys basketball team views his squad differently than the rest of the conference does.
“It’s hard to say, but I always believe Centennial is always an underdog in basketball,” Lavender said.
Riding an eight-game win streak after a close loss to the Eagles - who the Coyotes dominated on Saturday in a revenge game - Centennial is off to its best start to a season since Lavender took over as coach in 2017.
The Coyotes have a legitimate shot at contention for their first basketball state championship. It appears the players are starting to believe in themselves, too.
"I think we're a special team right now," sophomore Emery Young said.
What is really special about this group of Coyotes, though, is its combined youth. Against Ironwood, Centennial started just one senior. The majority of the contributing Coyotes are juniors and sophomores, even without Lavender's son and likely-starter junior Trenten Lavender having missed most of the season, while just a handful of seniors make an impact in their roles.
Lavender called coaching his team's young core "exciting and challenging."
"You’ve just got to be patient with them. And just kind of stay on them and praise them while they’re learning the game, so that they're ready," he said.
Rather than a detriment, many of the players think of their youth as another way in which Centennial is the 'underdog.'
"I think maybe teams underestimate us because of it, but we don't worry about that," said Petty after scoring a team-high 30 points against Ironwood.
And, while the Coyotes may have snuck up on the AIA this season, Lavender is not surprised by the surge.
He remembers a group of skilled middle-schoolers and incoming freshmen in 2017 that would eventually become the heart of the team. Now in 2021 the Coyotes are seeing the wait pay off.
“A couple years ago I knew we had some guys that needed to be seasoned. It was planned for them to roll in about this time. We took our beatings from other teams, and sometimes you have to take those to ready to play like we are now," Lavender said.
"It just kind of happened. We looked around and said, 'Yeah I think we've got some real players here,'" added Petty.
With some size and several players able to make shots from all areas on offense, as well as aggressive defense and rebounding, the Coyotes are playing at a high level.
Lavender said the key moving forward, in pursuit of a high playoff seed and a chance at a title, will be continued unselfishness and buy-in from the Coyotes.
“This year I haven’t really had to teach them about sharing the ball. They know the roles without telling them, so that’s been really promising," Lavender said.
At least for now, it seems to be working.
Centennial (10-1) is set to host Horizon (2-9) on Feb. 23.
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