TEMPE — A storm is brewing at the base of the Rincon Mountains in Vail, and the Mica Mountain Thunderbolts are bringing some reign to the hardwood. The first-year varsity program is putting the state on high-alert, sending another reminder out to the competition on Monday at the MLK Dream Classic in Tempe. Despite taking the game on short notice, the young ‘Bolts squad was able to pick up a 77-72 win over the Marcos de Niza Padres.
“We respect Marcos de Niza, we know how intense they are,” coach Gary Lee said. “We’re really excited. We’ve been in some close games but not finished, so it’s one of the best things to see the kids push through and make it happen.”
Building a program from scratch brings a vast array of challenges, but Lee is familiar with what it takes to find success. In 1999, Lee was named the first head coach of the Cesar Chavez Champions, where he led the Champions until 2020. During his tenure, Champions made two appearances in the State Championship Finals and accrued an overall record of 402-152.
From the early stages of Mica Mountain’s development, there’s been a large focus on bringing the most opportunities for athletic success to its students. Former Cienega Bobcats’ football coach turned principal Nemer Hassey was named as Mica Mountain’s planning principal, and former Sabino football coach and athletic director Jay Campos would be joining as the assistant.
The final addition to the staff was athletic director Whitney Holland. Making the transition from Cienega to Mica Mountain alongside Hassey, the new trio began the hunt to create Southern Arizona’s next high school powerhouse.
In an interview over the summer, Campos discussed what’s helping to set Mica Mountain apart as they establish a strong foundation for its athletic programs.
“Students want to go to a place where they can be successful,” Campos said. “We have a lot of key elements, number one being the facilities… We have a great, state-of-the-art weight room and we have our own strength coach. A lot of high schools don’t have their own strength coach, and his whole day is dedicated to getting our athletes bigger, faster and stronger.”
However, they know it’s not all about the materialistic aspect. In order for the Thunderbolts to become a perennial powerhouse, it would take the right group of coaches who have the same values.
“Without the right people in place running the programs and being the coaches, it doesn’t matter how great your facilities are,” Campos said. “The recipe is getting all those things in place. I think we’re a little young on the talent side of it, but I know we have the coaches… It’s just a matter of time.”
With no seniors on the roster, the ‘Bolts are being forced to gain experience as they grow. The lineup consists of four freshmen, eight sophomores and two juniors, but the team has shown tremendous talent and grit as they’ve been faced with a number of different challenges, such as playing
Reaching the back end of their inaugural season, the Thunderbolts have shown more than just flashes of what’s to come from Mica Mountain as the program continues to grow. In December, the squad won the Pima College Aztec Classic Silver Division Championship, defeating Cholla 78-62. After only ten games as a varsity program, the Thunderbolts had accomplished a significant feat.
It can be easy for some on the outside to look at the win and chalk it up to luck, but the Thunderbolts hammered home the message they’re here to stay by grinding to a 77-72 win over a menacing Marcos de Niza squad on the road. Even more convincing, the ‘Bolts took the game on just a few days notice, stepping in for the Saguaro Sabercats who are currently shut down because of Covid-19.
“We’re thankful for the opportunity to play today,” Lee said. “We were supposed to be in the gym practicing, so when the opportunity came we had our bags packed.”
Three from freshman Joshua Puente. He actually knocked down two back-go-back to make it 73-67 in the 4th with around 3:00 remaining pic.twitter.com/1nJXfTse2d
— Brittany Bowyer (@LittWithBritt) January 17, 2022
Monday’s game got off to a fast start between the two, as they continued to exchange buckets and fight to establish dominance for the duration of the first quarter. At the end of the first eight minutes of play, Marcos de Niza was able to take a 17-15 lead.
However, the Thunderbolts were able to finally take control of the momentum by starting off the second quarter with a three pointer from sophomore Mason Daffron to take the lead. From there, the Thunderbolts continued to chip away to a 33-25 lead about midway through the second.
The Padres weren’t getting put away so easily, though, and were able to go on a 12-4 run to deflate the ‘Bolts recent high. With time running out before the half, things were tied up at 37 as Mica Mountain was in possession of the ball. After rebounding a miss three from Daffron, sophomore Isaiah Berg was able to put it back up for a bucket before time expired to give Mica Mountain a 37-35 lead at the half.
The dogfight continued in the third quarter as both teams continued to exchange blows. After the ‘Bolts were able to climb out to a 49-43 lead midway through the third, the Padres were able to hustle their way back to tie things up at 55 by the end of the quarter.
Going into the fourth quarter, the gymnasium emitted the same vibes of a high-steaks playoff game.
Both teams continued to play hot as things unraveled in the fourth, as each fought to establish any sort of lead. Tied up at 67 midway through the final quarter, freshman Joshua Puente went on to drill back-to-back threes, putting Mica Mountain up 73-67.
Knowing it would likely shape up to the final seconds of the game based on how things had played out, the Thunderbolts had to stay focused to come out on top. With just one minute left, the Padres had brought it within three once again and had called a timeout.
On the ‘Bolts final possession of the game, a foul put them at the free throw line where they nailed both shots to take a 77-72 lead before one last defensive push helped close out the game.
Junior Kaspen Colbert was named as the Outstanding Player of the Game for his performance, finishing the night with 21 points to lead the team in scoring while also making a number of key plays to help the Thunderbolts get the win. Berg posted 13 points in the win, and Puente had 11.
As the playoffs approach, the Thunderbolts are still looking to fill their schedule with additional games. Currently, Mica Mountain’s next scheduled game is against Tanque Verde on Jan. 27, leaving the ‘Bolts with more than a week of downtime at a critical point in the year.
“We’re about five more games short than we’re looking for,” Lee said.
A trip to the State Championships with the up and coming squad doesn’t appear to be too far off for Lee. He’s already established a solid foundation as the black, blue and silver work to build an athletic empire in Southern Arizona. Pair it with an entire roster set to return next season and it would appear the Bolts just so happened to nail the recipe they were going for when chasing athletic success.
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07