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The first varsity football season for Mica Mountain this fall under legendary Pat Nugent nearly resulted in a spot in the 4A state playhoffs.
The boys basketball team also has an established coach — Gary Lee with a 402-152 record with two state runner-up finishes at Laveen Cesar Chavez High School — who is making the new Vail school an immediate winner in his sport.
Only 10 games into their varsity experience, the Thunderbolts (6-4) defeated Cholla 78-62 on Wednesday at Pima College’s West Campus Gym to claim the Aztec Classic Silver Division championship.
“The kids have put a lot of time and effort to try to develop and become a varsity team,” said Lee, who has returned to his Southern Arizona roots as a Tucson native and Benson High School product in track and basketball.
“To have some rough beginnings and start to see them understand how hard they have to play and share the ball it’s really been special.”
.@MicaMountainBB coach Gary Lee returning to his Southern Arizona roots coaching the Thunderbolts. Former Benson standout, led team to Aztec Classic Silver Division title today in Mica Mountain’s first varsity season. pic.twitter.com/xR8WAztnUd
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) December 23, 2021
Mica Mountain’s roster consists of primarly sophomores and juniors, much like that of Nugent with the football program that finished one spot out of the 4A state playoffs with a 3-3 record. Lee is not coaching any seniors.
The school’s volleyball program was also competitive from the start under coach Amy Johnson. The Thunderbolts finished 17-12 and advanced to the 4A state playoffs.
The Colbert brothers of Kentucky — both standouts in football who transferred to the school in January — are also on the basketball team.
Kason, a 6-2 sophomore, did not suit up Wednesday against Cholla because of an injury. Kaspen, a 6-3 junior forward who can play multiple positions, finished with 12 points, including eight in the last seven minutes of the first half when Mica Mountain started to pull away.
“It’s taken a little bit getting back in shape took about a week or so,” Kaspen said of the transition from football, in which he played mostly running back this season. “Now, we’re starting to get our second wind. We don’t get tired on the court.”
.@MicaMountainBB and @FootballMica standout Kaspen Colbert had 10 points and was dominant in the paint in the Thunderbolts’ 78-62 win over Cholla in the championship of the Aztec Classic Silver Division tournament. pic.twitter.com/BwdIrWgViD
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) December 22, 2021
Kaspen finished with 295 yards rushing on 32 carries — an average of 9.2 yards per carry — with Nugent’s team this season. Stats are not yet posted for the basketball team but he is solid in all areas — distributing, shooting and scoring, rebounding and his defense.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Berg, a 6-4 and 190-pound forward, is only a sophomore. He could grow to 6-7 or 6-8 and be even more of a force than he is now. He is a Class of 2024 prospect college recruiters will watch.
He dominated the paint against Cholla finishing 23 points and numerous rebounds.
“It’s crazy,” Berg said about winning a holiday tournament championship in the school’s first varsity season. “We’ve been working so hard in all of these past tournaments over the summer.”
This is the second time Lee is trying to build a program successfully from the ground up.
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) December 22, 2021
He coached Chavez since the Phoenix Union High School District school opened in 1999. He unjustly was forced to resign after the 2018-19 season following a fight that occurred in a holiday tournament that season that included his star point guard Ty Ty Washington, now at Kentucky, in the middle of it.
Despite losing Washington and another player from the team after that game against Mesa Skyline, Lee coached Chavez to the 6A state quarterfinals in which it lost to Desert Vista.
“This appears to be the last game I will coach as the only head coach in the history of Cesar Chavez boys basketball,” Lee told the Arizona Republic in an April 9, 2019, interview.
With Mica Mountain opening in the 2020-21 school year and close friend Whitney Holland the Thunderbolts’ athletic director (they share a background at Benson), Lee fortunately was hired and returned home to Southern Arizona to coach.
Not only is Mica Mountain better for his hiring, but so is basketball in general in Southern Arizona. A 400-win coach is hard to come by.
His father, the late Jerry Page Lee, taught and coached at Benson for 35 years. He was most recognized as a successful track coach, winning 12 state championships. He also coached Gary in basketball.
“One of the nicest things about a new build is all the young kids are getting all of the experience,” Gary said of his experience so far at Mica Mountain. “We’re not playing seniors who will be gone in 90 days. Everything we’re working on, everything we’re gaining, will stay with the program, for a year or two at least.”
Having that buffer year last season with only freshman and junior varsity games scheduled also helped prepare Lee and the Thunderbolts for the early success they have experienced this season.
“It established work ethic and practice routines,” Lee said of last year. “We got some games in, about nine JV, 10 freshman, and it really paid off.”
Jacob Flores-Banuelos added 16 points for Mica Mountain in the win over Cholla.
The Chargers’ highly-talented junior guard Masai Dean Jr. finished with 29 points after scoring 25 in the semifinal win over Tanque Verde on Tuesday. Ciarin Williams added 11 points.
Cholla resumes it schedule Jan. 4 at Catalina.
Mica Mountain next plays at Coolidge on Jan. 5.
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District