Salpointe in championship under longtime assistant Castillo, Tommy Lloyd of HS hoops

When told he was the Tommy Lloyd of Arizona high school basketball, Salpointe coach Eric Castillo had a good laugh.

Arizona actually should want Lloyd — a 20-year assistant at Gonzaga who has Arizona ranked No. 2 in his first season as a head coach — to be the Eric Castillo of college basketball.

Castillo, a 17-year assistant at Salpointe before finally getting his chance to be a head coach this season, has led the Lancers to the 4A state championship game as a No. 1 seed with a 26-2 record.

The 60-53 victory over visiting Glendale Deer Valley on Tuesday night clinched a spot in the championship again after the Lancers won their first state title in school history in 2019-20. This is the sixth consecutive trip for the Lancers to the final four of the Arizona high school state playoffs under Brian Holstrom, Jim Reynolds and now Castillo.

“He’s definitely a little more tougher on us,” senior point guard Julian Riesgo said of Castillo’s transition from assistant to head coach. “Discipline-wise, he makes sure we don’t slack off. He was like that last year too, but I feel like now he’s gotten a little more on us, which honestly has helped us a lot and got us to where we are right now.”

Fellow senior Dillan Baker mentioned that Castillo’s best quality is the way he spurs the team.

“Coach E, he’s great, I mean he just motivates us every day,” Baker said. “He never lets us relax (and) always keeps us going. Just the energy he brings, the trust he has for us, just really makes an impact for us.”

Castillo, 63, is the one constant throughout these final four appearances and he has been a fixture in the program to when he was first an assistant in 2004-05 under Michael Steward. He transitioned from Steward to Sean Loomer in 2006, Loomer to Jerry Zander in 2009, Zander to Holstrom in 2010 and Holstrom to Reynolds in 2017.

When asked if he ever thought he would never become a head coach, Castillo answered, “Actually, my whole life.”

“I never really thought about it,” Castillo said. “When COVID hit and the way the kids were away from school, away from basketball and away from everything, I didn’t want them to come back to a strange situation.

“I wanted them to feel very at ease when they came back. I thought me stepping in at that point would make it an easy transition for them. And I have great young (assistant) coaches (Chase Babb and Blaise Babicke). Those guys have been with us six, seven or eight years as well.”

Eric Castillo is in his 18th season with the Salpointe program, his first as head coach (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Salpointe will play Gilbert Mesquite (26-3) in the 4A state championship game Monday night at 8 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

Mesquite is riding the high of a 17-game winning streak after an improbable 55-foot shot beyond midcourt at the buzzer by Nate Calmese to beat host Phoenix St. Mary’s 74-73 on Tuesday night.

The Wildcats were down by 73-68 with 3 seconds left and pulled it out. Elijah Foster made a 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left to cut the deficit to 73-71. An attempted pass by St. Mary’s to the other side of the court was tipped into the hands of Calmese, who immediately heaved the shot as the buzzer sounded.

Deer Valley looked as though it was going to make its game with Salpointe a classic after it rallied from 20 points down in the second half, cutting the Lancers’ lead to five points twice in the fourth quarter.

“I think we played solid but that fourth quarter it got a little too close at the end,” said Salpointe junior guard Canyon Torres, who had 13 of his 15 points in the first half. “We didn’t really make it work with our free throws, which was an emphasis in the last two practices, but this next week that’s all we’re going to be doing to get ready for state.”

Salpointe, which is on a 19-game winning streak, scored the first six points of the second half and built a 40-20 lead before Deer Valley started to chip away at the deficit.

A 3-point play by Eric Perkins, who finished with 14 points, cut the lead to 46-36 with 1:15 remaining in the third quarter.

Deer Valley came to within 54-49 with 3:33 left on a Jayden Sleeper drive to the basket. The Hawks had an opportunity to cut into the lead with the ball, but a turnover thwarted that attempt.

Salpointe’s parade to the free-throw line followed and the Lancers managed to make most of their attempts to pull away. The Lancers attempted 14 free throws in the fourth quarter and made nine of them. That was enough for Salpointe to maintain its lead down the stretch holding at least a two-possession lead.

Canyon Torres spurred a pivotal 19-4 surge in the second quarter for Salpointe (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Deer Valley did not take advantage of Salpointe’s five missed free throws in the fourth quarter, going into a cold spell. The Skyhawks were scoreless for almost three minutes as Salpointe built its lead to 59-49 heading into the last minute of the game.

Salpointe scored nine of its 12 points at the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.

“I had to make sure I contributed; I couldn’t get frustrated with myself when I didn’t score,” said Riesgo, a captain who had two of the free throws in the fourth quarter and finished with 14 points with three steals.

Deer Valley spent most of the game trying to catch up to Salpointe. The Lancers led 15-6 early before Perkins sparked a 10-0 rally that put Deer Valley ahead 16-15 with 7:15 left in the half.

That’s when Torres came alive with eight points that propelled the Lancers to outscore the Skyhawks 19-4 before the end of the second quarter. Torres’ 13 points in the first half combined with eight from Baker enabled Salpointe to lead 34-20 at halftime.

“Canyon stepped up huge tonight,” Castillo said. “That second quarter was like ‘The Canyon Quarter.’ It was amazing. He got a bunch of backdoor cuts and layups.”

Salpointe coach Eric Castillo is 26-2 in his first season as a head coach (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Baker, who also attacked the basket in that pivotal 19-4 surge, finished with 16 points to lead the Lancers. He made 3 of 4 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter to help stave off Deer Valley.

Baker and Riesgo were part of the state championship team from two years ago.

“I remember the experience of getting a ring, so I want to get another one,” Riesgo said.

Riesgo and Baker were role players in the championship season but are integral parts of Castillo’s balanced scoring and effort now. Brett Rosenblatt, a senior, contributed with 12 rebounds against Deer Valley and Pasha Shemirani, a junior, had seven boards.

“My thoughts are this week we have six days, five days, something like that, a long time, just really staying focused, especially through Rodeo Break and not having school there,” Baker said. “Just really focusing in on basketball and executiing.”


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.

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