Youthful coaches at Salpointe, Sunnyside bring spark to Southern Arizona girls basketball

Salpointe’s Joseph Luevano and Sunnyside’s Justin Delgado are young head coaches who should improve the competitive nature of Southern Arizona girls high school basketball if their teams’ lofty rankings are an indication.

As first-year coaches, they each have their programs ranked in the top 10 currently by AZPreps 365 of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Luevano, 40, replaced Justin Curran as Salpointe’s coach after serving as his top assistant for three years. He has the Lancers ranked No. 4 in Class 4A at 9-0 after Tuesday’s 60-38 win over Delgado’s Sunnyside team, which is No. 8 in Class 5A with a 6-2 record.

Delgado, 33, was hired by Sunnyside athletic director Casey O’Brien from Baboquivari, where he led the boys program to success. Delgado joined the Blue Devils after James Jackson, another young developing coach, took over the Sabino program following the departure of Jaamal Rhodes to AZ Compass Prep in Gilbert after he led the Sabercats to a 3A state title last year.

Joseph Luevano talks to his team during its win over Sunnyside (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Within the last 10 years, coaches such as Pueblo’s Ismael Galindo and Rincon/University’s Darryl Carlson have helped develop successful programs in Southern Arizona.

Steve Botkin at Sahuaro and Michael Perkins at Flowing Wells have become institutions with girls basketball in this region.

What Southern Arizona needs are relatable coaches such as Luevano and Delgado who are knowledgeable of youth basketball development.

“Changing the culture, it’s always an uphill battle, but the girls have been great adjusting to it, and I think they’re really buying in. It’s carried us to where we are right now,” said Delgado, who coached Baboquivari and star guard Kota Benson to the 1A state semifinals last season with a 24-9 record.

Delgado also coaches the AZ Outlaws girls club team. With his background in AAU basketball, he was aware of some of Sunnyside’s players who competed for the TNT club team the last four years. He believed girls basketball could become a success at Sunnyside because of that young group.

Justin Delgado is in his first year as Sunnyside’s girls basketball coach after leading the Baboquivari boys team to success (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

His goal is to have the Sunnyside Unified School District’s middle schools produce players that can supplement his operation. Derrick Haywood, Desert View’s coach since 2016-17, has the same objective.

“It’s that continued buy-in that we need,” Delgado said. “We’re trying to hit those filter-feeder schools, like the middle schools, and try and get buy-in from any girls who are interested in playing basketball from the outside or here at the school.

“We want buy in, we want three teams, we want a freshman team, we want a JV (junior varsity) team and a varsity team. We believe that’s going to help us get better and also just create that fun, positive environment for the girls.”

Luevano’s background is in the medical field as an orthopedic technician. He currently works for Children’s Clinics as the Adaptive Recreation Coordinator and Equipment Coordinator. In his eight years at Children’s Clinics, he started the Adaptive Rec program with a pediatric physical therapist.

He has been responsible for providing more than 400 adaptive tricycles and sports programming to children with special needs over the last four years.

Sunnyside’s Andrea De La Fuente tries to get past Salpointe’s Jaya Nelson (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Luevano grew up playing basketball in Superior, where his father, the late Joe R. Luevano Jr., was a mayor.

Curran put him in charge of player development of all three levels (freshman, junior varsity and varsity) at Salpointe in addition to being the assistant varsity coach.

Luevano helps the Children’s Clinic host an adaptive basketball program annually of which he runs with pediatric physical therapists and volunteers.  The operation is on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The adaptive basketball program will eventually become something that the players of my program will be asked to participate in and volunteer,” Luevano said. “I also work with and train kids privately from time to time. This has helped me work on developing individual skills of athletes but also develop a better understanding of kids these days. 

“Starting in April, our basketball program will begin a new off-season program focused mostly on strength and conditioning and skill development.  The program will be run by (strength and conditioning coach) Carla Garrett at Salpointe. I want to do everything I can to not only prepare my team to be successful in the high school level but also prepare athletes to play at the next level.”

When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and it is deemed safe by county health officials, Luevano plans to run regular camps for fifth to eighth graders “to not only get them interested in basketball but get them interested in Salpointe basketball,” he said.

His background in helping the development of his players has proven to be important to Salpointe’s success.

“It’s been somewhat of an easy transition because all of the players knew me well when we started this season,” Luevano said. “The defense that we’ve played over the past four years in a lot aspects was my defense already, so that’s made it an easy transition.

“Everything else has been about chemistry. They’ve just developed this chemistry that we lacked at times in the past. Our practices are very high energy. It’s paid off and it’s helped us sort of wear teams down. We’re trying to use our strengths and go from there.”

Luevano and his three assistants Eliana Loya, Marissa Herrington and Sabrina Laporta have helped develop that chemistry with a good mix of seniors and juniors as starters.

Loya is a Salpointe alum working toward attending law school. Herrington is the junior varsity coach who is also a Salpointe alum working on a master’s in social work. Laporta is an educator who is an associate head coach with the junior varsity team.

They have worked with the program the last three to four years along with Luevano.

Salpointe’s Jaya Nelson is one of top 4A players in the state (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

“All three women have been important in player development and more importantly in team unity team togetherness,” Luevano said.

Jaya Nelson (15.8 points a game) and Madeline Namanny (6.6 rebounds per game) are seniors who lead the Lancers in scoring and rebounding, respectively.

Junior guard Kylee Callahan, who led Salpointe with 24 points in the Lancers’ 60-38 win at Sunnyside on Tuesday night, is averaging 11.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and a team-best 4.4 assists per game. Tessa Hastings, another junior, is averaging 8.9 points a game.

Sophomore guard Bria Medina tops the Lancers with an incredible 4.8 steals per game.

“I’m very proud of my group of girls,” Luevano said. “They play so hard and they have bought into this defensive toughness and trying to do their best to not beat themselves. We also understand that we have a long way to go.

“Honestly, we have a lot to prove. We have a little chip on our shoulders in terms of what we want to do and what we want to accomplish. This group of girls has really bought in and we’re hoping that the hard work will pay off.”

Sunnyside seniors Vitoria Perez and Andrea De La Fuente lead the Blue Devils in scoring, but of the eight top players in Sunnyside’s rotation, five are freshmen and sophomores.

Perez averages 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. De La Fuenta is at 11.0 points a game.

Freshman Nayeli Nidez-Acuña is a rising star leading the Blue Devils with 9.6 rebounds a game.

Delgado credits the work with his assistants for Sunnyside’s success early in his tenure. One of his assistants is his father Pete Delgado, who is Baboquivari’s football and baseball coach. The other is Julius Johnson, who has a background at Baboquivari and with Amphi’s junior varsity program.

All three of them are enrolled members of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Justin is a sergeant with the Tohono O’odham Police Department.

The elder Delgado has been the executive director for the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Housing Authority since 2011.

Vitoria Perez has helped Sunnyside’s record improve from year to year in her four seasons at the varsity level (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

“I’m only as good as my assistants,” the younger Delgado said. “My dad, he really keeps me level-headed because I still kind of tend to be a little arrogant from time to time. So he keeps me in check.

“He knows how to be a head coach of a program and that’s what I really value from him, from the grades to dealing with student issues, all that stuff, he’s very important to our program.”

Perez is in her fourth year at the varsity level at Sunnyside and her teams have gradually improved from 6-17 as a freshman to 10-16 as a sophomore and 14-14 last year.

She is occupying the senior captain role Angelina Alcantar, a 1,000-point scorer in her career, had last year before moving on to Arizona Christian.

Perez and her teammates and Delgado and his staff wear gear designed by Delgado and his wife that reads “We Are Sunnyside.” The slogan emphasizes Delgado’s theme of strengthening a sense of pride toward basketball at the school.

The Delgados have a history of making winners out of the programs they have coached at Baboquivari by not backing down to challenges that take place at the Class 1A level on the reservation.

“I like his style because he doesn’t have favorites and he helps us all out,” Perez said of her head coach. “He never picks on one individual. We all basically learn more as a team.”


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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