GILBERT — The Cienega Bobcats are eyeing a birth in the inaugural Open Division playoffs this season after getting off to a strong start against a tough schedule.
With Monday’s most recent 64-50 win over Williams Field, the Bobcats are now sitting at 3-1 on the AIA’s schedule, but including tournament play, are off to a 6-2 start.
“We’ve been off to a really good start this season,” said first-year Cienega coach Jason Apodaca, formerly of CDO. “We’re looking bigger picture. Maybe 5A state tournament or the Open Division.”
The score makes the game appear closer than it was, as the Bobcats jumped out to an early lead in the first quarter and only continued building it. In the third quarter, Williams Field was still trailing by nearly 20 before starting to make a late push towards a comeback, but it would be too much for the Black Hawks to overcome.
“I’m really proud of my guys,” Apodaca said. “We’re missing one of our best players, he’s out sick. But, we took care of business and that’s all that matters.”
Cienega took a minute to settle in to start the game, but by midway through the first quarter, the Bobcats had jumped out to an 11-5 lead.
Williams Field was able to block a shot by senior Conner Bailey, but senior Randy Carillo was right behind him to grab the ball and put it up for a bucket. The huge play put a damper on the energy for Williams Field and helped kick-start a big run to close out the first quarter for the Bobcats as they led 22-7.
The momentum carried into the second quarter for Cienega, as good ball movement opened up a beautiful shot from downtown for junior Moses Bahige to give them a 30-11 lead.
Defensively, the Bobcats were playing great defense, making it impossible for the Black Hawks to penetrate and forcing them to take shots from the perimeter or turn the ball over. While Williams Field was able to start breaking down the defense a bit before the half, they still went into the locker room trailing Cienega 39-25.
Coming out to start the third quarter, Cienega was able to keep pushing the pace, extending things to 45-27 off a three point shot by senior Nick Johnson.
Williams Field kept pushing and was able to start finding a way to get to the basket, but by the end of the third quarter, Cienega was still up 51-37. They didn’t quit, fighting until the very end the final bucket of the game to make the final score 64-50.
For Cienega, picking up such a big win on the road meant it would be a fun bus ride back to Vail.
“I’m really proud,” Apodaca said. “Phoenix athletes and teams are usually really, really good. So, credit to this team.”
Senior Gabe Proctor led things on the night for the Bobcats, recording a double-double with 17 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. Senior Mason Tippett had 15 points, three rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block, while Bahige also had 10 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Part of the reason Cienega’s tournament play, in addition to their regular schedule, is important to consider is because of the strength of opponents the Bobcats faced. Coach Apodaca credits those games to being big opportunities for learning and growth, and that he thinks this year it will help them immensely when Region Play begins and especially for the playoffs.
“There’s really great teams in Tucson, but night-in, night-out, Phoenix is unbelievable,” Apodaca said about tournament play. “I scheduled us for Thanksgiving Mesa’s Fear the Hop, Gilbert High School’s Christmas [Tournament]. We played a really good Cactus Shadows team last week… It was everything we want. It helped our guys get to the ultimate goal.”
The Bobcats will return to the court on Wednesday at home when they play Marana Mountain View. On Thursday, they’ll be back on the road to face Catalina Foothills before one final game at home before break starts on Wed., Dec. 14 against Sahuarita.
Then, the Bobcats will have a couple weeks to rest and prepare for one last tournament in the Valley to close out 2022 before hitting the ground running with the back half of the schedule in 2023.