Chris Orozco raises the 2017 5A state championship trophy as he and his Sunnyslope High School teammates celebrate their first title. It was one of three championship game appearances the group made. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Breen/azcentral)
PHOENIX – Back-to-back championships. Three consecutive title appearances. An 89-29 record over four years. And all accomplished while playing against 33 soon-to-be Division I athletes, eight future NBA players and nine eventual 1,000-point college scorers.
Discussion about the greatest Arizona high school boys basketball teams of the 2010s often center around Corona del Sol’s four-peat from 2012-15, or Shadow Mountain’s five championships in six years from 2014-19. But one team is often overlooked:
The Sunnyslope Vikings’ three years of unexpected dominance.
Sunnyslope has had several great basketball players put on its jerseys, from Michael Humphrey who starred at Stanford and played professionally overseas, to John Simon who brought Sunnyslope its first state championship, to Royce Woolridge who is the school’s all-time leading scorer and went on to play at Kansas. But none of these players accomplished what the class of 2018 did.
The graduation of several key contributors in the class of 2014 – the final season at Sunnyslope for guard Sammy Barnes-Thompkins – left coach Ray Portela and his staff with plenty of holes for the 2014-15 season. Some were filled by six promising freshmen: 6-foot-6 power forward/center Chris Orozco, 6-4 small forward Kyle Fischer, 6-foot guard Jaran Whitfield, 6-foot guard Terrence Gilder, 6-1 guard Allan Abayev and 6-1 guard Bryson Mewhinney.
“We knew they were going to be talented when they came in, but we didn’t really know how talented,” Portela said. “You never know what’s going to happen until they get there and in the gym.”
Although the young players showed immense promise, their freshman year was tumultuous and marred by injuries, issues in the locker room and the temporary departure of Fischer from the school.
“We had some internal issues with us freshmen and the upperclassmen,” Orozco said. “The freshmen were getting more playing time, a lot more playing time, and kind of created friction between us and it got in the way of feeling like one unit and being all on the same page.”
Abayev remembers that the struggle of not getting along with some of their older teammates helped the group of freshmen grow closer, and they learned how to rely on each other in hard times.
Despite the issues, Portela and his coaching staff stuck to their plan.
“At Sunnyslope, we don’t play politics,” Portela said. “We’re going to play the best group that we feel is going to give our team the greatest opportunity to win and be successful, regardless of class.”
The 2014-15 basketball season ended up being one of the worst in the history of Sunnyslope. The team finished 11-15 while dealing with countless injuries to key players. But the coaches’ support for the freshmen never wavered.
“The coaches putting us on varsity as freshmen gave us a lot of confidence,” Gilder said. “They saw the vision of the next four years. I give all credit to our coaches for seeing that in us even though they had guys that had been there a few years in the program. The encouragement and belief from them helped us gain some confidence.”
The players at Sunnyslope knew that things needed to change in the locker room. The young guys got together with the upperclassmen and told each other that they were in this together, that they needed to put their differences behind them and try to accomplish something great.
“Some guys ended up quitting,” Abayev said. “But we really jelled with the ones who stayed and we found our way together. We never wanted to feel the way we did again. (The previous season) was so embarrassing.”
In the summer following the 2014-15 season, the gym’s energy changed. Zach Paloma, an incoming freshman,was shocked to see how high the level of competition was within the Sunnyslope team.
“For my first open gym, I was on the JV side,” he said. “I looked over (to the varsity side) and I see Hank Hibbeler light up some guard on a screen and I thought, ‘For as long as I live, there’s no chance I’ll be able to compete on that level with those guys.’”
Paloma noticed how hard the varsity team worked. He said they would go hard at each other in one drill, and then laugh with each other once the drill was done.
“What was so special about the 2018 group of guys was that there was so much accountability.” Paloma said. “I knew that if I ever wanted to play, I had to go into every single practice and every single drill and work because everyone next to me is working their asses off.”
The 2015-16 season produced a jaw-dropping turnaround thanks to the growth of the class of 2018 players, the healed relationship between the now seniors and sophomores and the return of Fischer. The team went 22-4, making the eighth seed going into the playoffs.
In the first round, Sunnyslope routed a talented Chandler team 75-53 and advanced to face talented top seed Corona del Sol that had just won four state titles in a row.
“All of the reporters were saying we were gonna get blown out. That we weren’t on the same level as Corona, this and that,” Mewhinney said. “Then we played them at ASU, and we stunned everybody and ended their dynasty.”
Sunnyslope beat Corona del Sol 61-53 and claimed their spot in the 2016 Division I state finals. After finishing 11-15 the previous year and missing the playoffs, the Vikings had a shot at the state title.
Sunnyslope faced an experienced Mesa team in the championship that was hungry for a title.
“I believe we had three freshmen starting in that championship game,” Orozco said. “It was against a great Mesa team with a similar playing style to us: tough defense, hard-nosed playing the ball, moving it around and stuff like that. We felt prepared because of the work we put in with our coaches.”
It was not meant to be. Sunnyslope lost 51-48.
“We had a great first half and just a not very good second half,” Portela said. “We ultimately lost to a very well-coached Mesa High School team.”
While the group of sophomores were sad that they didn’t win, they saw that their story was just beginning. They were more disappointed that they couldn’t help their senior teammates, including Dane Maggi and Hank Hibbeler, go out on top in their final game as Vikings.
In the days following the loss, Sunnyslope players and coaches turned their eyes to next season. They knew that they had to redeem themselves.
“We realized that next year was not going to be any easier,” Orozco said. “We were not going to have any of the older kids, and we were going to have to do it on our own. We were going to have to figure stuff out to be able to get back to the championship like we wanted.”
Portela thinks that the title loss to Mesa set the table for the future.
“After that game, the guys started really believing in what we were teaching them, buying in and seeing how successful they could be,” he said.
The 2016-17 Sunnyslope season was so full of improbable moments, it almost sounds fabricated.
Basketball magic was in the air for Sunnyslope in their early season matchup against Chaparral. But the game began with an ugly first half for the Vikings.
“We should’ve never started how we did,” Fischer said. “It was ridiculous.”
The Vikings went into halftime down 17 to the Firebirds thanks to impressive scoring from Chaparral guard Colten Kresl.
Players vividly remember Portela delivering a particularly fired-up speech that motivated the team to go out and win the game their way.
“As a coach, you got to search for something to try to inspire your team,” Portela said. “It may have been a little spirited, you know, I’ve been known to get that way a little bit. I just reminded them that ‘hey, we don’t practice six days a week, two and a half hours a day just to do this. You guys are better than this and you know you’re better than this.’”
Sunnyslope came out in the second half blazing and was able to take the game to double overtime and steal the win away from the Firebirds.
Over the 2016 winter break, in the Visit Mesa Tournament, Sunnyslope played King’s High School from Seattle and future NBA player Cory Kispert.
“I remember Portela told us all about this guy Kispert,” Paloma said. “He was tall, strong and he was going to get whatever shot he wanted so we just had to limit him.”
Sunnyslope played a stronng game against a very talented King’s team. The game was tied at the end of the game when Kispert drove and made a layup over Abayev, who took a picture-perfect charge that the refs didn’t call.
Mewhinney inbounded the ball to Whitfield, who took two dribbles to the opponent’s free throw line, heaved the ball up and … hit it. Vikings win by one.
“It felt so surreal,” Whitfield said in an interview with AZCentral. “I couldn’t believe that shot went down.”
Mewhinney said, “Man, that’s just something you see on a “SportsCenter” Top 10 type thing. That was definitely something you’d never forget.”
Although the season featured many electric moments, the most significant storyline was the season-long war between Sunnyslope and Apollo. The two powerhouses were destined to meet on the biggest stage.
The first regular season meeting of the Hawks and Vikings came at Apollo. Sunnyslope came out on fire and had as high as a 22-point lead in the first half. “We were clicking on all cylinders,” Portela said. “Until the fourth quarter.”
Apollo made a comeback behind standout play from star guards Dre Marin and Holland Woods. The Hawks beat the Vikings by eight in triple overtime.
The final regular season matchup between the two was memorable. Before the game, Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker tweeted out that he wanted to attend.
#ApollovsSlope.. Where and when?
— Book (@DevinBook) January 30, 2017
The tweet created a buzz in the Arizona basketball world and fans wanted to catch a glimpse of the city’s newest NBA star.
Lines were out the door before the JV game ended.
“Even my mom couldn’t get into the game until the end of the fourth quarter,” Paloma said.
Paloma remembers that during the game, he started to hear fans chant “Devin Booker” over and over.
“I look back to the stands and I see DBook in the cleanest Kentucky varsity jacket,” Paloma said. “And I was like, Oh my God! That’s Devin Booker!”
During halftime, fans were doing everything they could just to get close to Booker.
“I remember people were pushing our bench chairs all the way to the free throw line so that they could try and get a picture with DBook,” Orozco said.
Apollo ended up winning 57-53 behind a huge game from Woods, who scored 22 points.
“We were going back and forth,” Abayev said. “We weren’t playing our best game, but they weren’t either. We kind of let that game go.”
Sunnyslope finished the season 23-4 and secured the third seed going into the playoffs. Sunnyslope defeated McClintock and Cienega in the first two rounds handily. It then met 15-seeded Liberty who had made a Cinderella run to the semifinals.
“We always got chippy with Liberty,” Abayev said. “I remember coach telling us before the game to take them out early because if we got chippy, they could find a way to win. We had a great game, our bench played so well.”
Sunnyslope routed Liberty 69-38. Senior guard Andrew Greb had an impressive game off the bench, scoring 16 points while shooting 86% from the field.
The Vikings were back in the finals for a second year in a row, this time against the team they battled against in the regular season: the Apollo Hawks.
Despite Apollo beating Sunnyslope in every previous matchup that season, Sunnyslope was confident in their chances.
“We always told ourselves that it’s tough to beat a team three times,” Portela said. “We kind of held on to that. We felt that we saw their best punch. We always thought they were the best team that we were going to see all year and we felt prepared for the next matchup.”
The title game was back and forth with Sunnyslope taking a 28-21 lead going into halftime.
“It was a battle the whole time,” Orozco said. “Towards the end of regulation, it was looking pretty scary for us because I was missing some clutch free throws and they were making every free throw they got. We grinded it out and it ended up going to a first overtime.”
The first overtime was a defensive war with both teams only scoring two points each in the entire period, sending it to a second overtime.
After the two squads went back and forth in the second overtime, Kyle Fischer hit two free throws to put the Vikings up 58-57 with just 7.8 seconds left. Apollo called time out.
In the huddle before the final play, the players remember a decision made to double Woods. Sunnyslope wanted to pressure Woods and maybe make another player take the potential game-winning shot. Sunnyslope believedit knew the play that Apollo would run.
“We knew Holland was going to be coming off the screen trying to attack,” Fischer said.
They guessed right. Woods came off the screen. Fischer and Paloma doubled. Woods took the shot, and he made it. But the shot was still in his hand as the buzzer sounded.
Sunnyslope was the 2016-17 5A state champion.
Fischer finished with an impactful 17 points and Orozco had a head-turninng start, beginning the game 10 for 10 from the field and finishing with 25 points on 65% shooting from the field.
“It meant so much. That win took so much off our shoulders,” Abayev said. “Not a lot of people saw the struggle behind closed doors. We had to get in the gym, put in more work and rely on each other. That core group went through a lot to get where we did. I can’t even put it into words how hard we worked.”
Sunnyslope’s hard work had finally paid off, and the players were ready to celebrate. “I don’t think we slept that entire night,” Orozco said. “We had a real sense of accomplishment. It was a really great feeling, the thrill of it all.”
Portela was proud of his players and their accomplishments. But in an interview on the court following the win, reality set in.
“The guy interviewing me said, “Wow, you guys won the state championship, and you have everybody returning,” Portela said. “As soon as he said that I couldn’t really enjoy what we had done. Yeah, it was nice. But once he said that we have everyone back, something clicked for me. We have to do this again. And if we don’t do it again, I was questioning would we be termed a failure? So from that moment on, for me as a coach, it was in no relaxation mode.”
Going into the 2017-18 school year, the main group’s senior season, hopes were high.
“We definitely had confidence we didn’t have before,” Orozco said. “We knew how to get back to the stage we were on for the past two seasons, we just had to get back there.”
Before the beginning of the basketball season, Sunnyslope hosted a Thanksgiving tournament in its gym. “Winning the tournament means a lot to us because it’s the first tournament to start the season,” Abayev said. “It’s always a good way to start.”
But Deer Valley High School came into the Sunnyslope gym and beat the Vikings in the championship game.
“Deer Valley just kicked our butts,” Portela said. “That kind of woke us up a little bit.”
The next matchup wouldn’t go so well for Deer Valley, but Sunnyslope had some troubles of its own.
“We were up like 20 and it was getting chippy,” Abayev said. “I threw a pass to Greb across the court, and he went up for a layup and got fouled hard. He fell on his head, and he was out cold.”
Greb was taken to the hospital but made a complete recovery. Sunnyslope players handled the Skyhawks 54-30 and took some of that anger they felt from their teammates’ injury and kept it ready for a potential playoff matchup.
“When we see one of our guys, our brothers go down, that puts our walls up,” Mewhinney said. “Seeing him get hit like that, fall like that, automatically hyped us up. We had even more anger and confidence to beat them.”
Sunnyslope finished the season with a 22-5 record and earned the No. 2 seed going into the playoffs. The Vikings destroyed their competition on the way to the championship game, beating Chaparral 62-33 in the first round, routing Sahuaro 67-34 in the second, and cruising past the Centennial Coyotes 42-29 in the semifinals.
Sunnyslope would go on to face Deer Valley in the finals, and the Vikings were ready.
“We talked on the bus ride there about how we’d make history if we won this game,” Gilder said. “No one in Sunnyslope history had won state back-to-back for basketball and we wanted us and coach Portela to be the first.”
The game was fairly tight with Sunnyslope maintaining a decent lead throughout most of the game. Deer Valley made it close at times but toward the end, Sunnyslope turned it up.
Sunnyslope would go on to win the game by 10, cementing itself as the only team in school history to win back-to-back state titles.
“This one was so special,” Mewhinney said. “It’s something you’d see in high school movies. You’re a senior winning the championship, your final game ever and going back-to-back. It just can’t get any better than that.”
In four years, this Sunnyslope team reached heights that most high school athletes can only dream of, and if did it all without a single Division I prospect.
“It just shows you teams can win,” Orozco said. “We’re just a bunch of guys who came together. We didn’t overstep our boundaries, try to do too much or get big egos. We just bought in and worked together. We didn’t have one player who carried the whole team. I’m not saying that’s bad or anything, but I feel like it’s a lot more fun when you have everyone involved and everybody can get a slice of the pie.”
The players believe the class of 2018 was a special group.
“I played with a lot of talented kids. I played with a team full of high Division I guys. And the class of 2018 ‘Slope group was the most special team I have ever been a part of,” Paloma said. “They taught me accountability. I always believed in that but seeing how they held their teammates accountable was a different thing. That’s a testament to how close those guys were, and I appreciate them for bringing me into the group like they did. It was really special.”
Portela said the players gets together when they can for dinners, where they reminisce on all they accomplish together.
“Just to have those guys come back together and tell stories about something we did, something I said or how I reacted in the moment. That’s what makes it great for me,” he said.
“These guys really believed in each other,” Portela said. “They bought in, and they played as a team. You always say, ‘Hey, play as a team. Play together.’ This team really bought into that. They saw what they could do, that the sky was the limit if they played together. It’s the trust factor they had with each other, the love they had for each other. It wasn’t always pretty, just like any family. There were some bumps and some disagreements, but we worked through it.
And, you know, the rest is history.”