After two years of running through most of the competition in the 5A Conference, the Flowing Wells Lady Caballeros are anticipating a change of pace as they return to 4A.
The Lady Cabs have made it to the state championship game the last two seasons, and with the addition of the Open Division this year, they know it’s a whole new ballgame.
“I like the idea of the open,” longtime coach Michael Perkins said. “When you talk about a state champion, people want to get out there and compete and say, ‘Who are the best eight teams in the state?’ So let those eight teams in the state get out there and go compete.”
While Perkins knows there’s still a grueling journey separating them from the playoffs, he has confidence in his team’s ability to get the job done this year. While there may be some rough spots on the road, he noted how much more the team takes away from those games and the growth they’re able to see after.
While it sounds like making a drop to 4A would result in an easier path back to the championship, it’s hardly the case.
The change places them in the 4A Kino region, arguably one of the toughest in Arizona, as they’re up against Canyon del Oro, Pueblo, Sahuaro and Salpointe Catholic each at least twice this season.
Perkins said he hopes with the move to 4A Kino Region, their old-time rivalry with Salpointe Catholic, the 2022 4A State Champions, will be restored on the hardwood.
The Division also arguably offers more challenges, as the 4A Girls is oftentimes more competitive than 5A, but Perkins knows there’s good competition anywhere you look in Arizona.
“Wherever you are, you’re going to play good teams,” Perkins said. “Wherever we’re placed, that’s out of my control, but we’re going to go play Flowing Wells basketball.”
Perkins will return nine players from last year’s Runner-up team, including star seniors Navine Mallon and Sydney Lomeli-Capen. It’s also a very senior-heavy roster, with eight of the 17 girls set to graduate in the spring.
Mallon finished her junior year averaging a double-double with 16 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.7 steals per game.
An outstanding player on both sides of the ball, she was named a member of the All-Arizona Team in 2022. The senior just signed her letter of intent to continue playing next year at Westmont College in California.
“She’s so versatile,” Perkins said. “She can handle the ball, she can shoot the ball from outside, she can pound the ball inside. She can rebound and do all the gritty dirty work. So, a lot of stuff is going to run through her.”
Lomeli-Capen also has the ability to be explosive on the court and knows how to use her height in the paint, especially. The big finished her junior year averaging 9.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, a block and a steal per game.
Lomeli-Capen was another critical piece in Flowing Wells making it back to the State Championship game last season, but unfortunately, had been fighting a worsening battle with her kneecaps dislocating. After it happened once again in the middle of the Championship and she was forced to watch the team from the bench, Lomeli-Capen got both of her knees surgically repaired over the summer.
“Recovery has been rough,” Lomeli-Capen said. “It’s been mentally challenging, along with physically.”
“She’s an incredibly tough kid that loves the game of basketball,” Perkins said. “She eats, breathes, thinks basketball all the time… We need her IQ just as much as we need her physical presence.”
While Perkins understands it’s going to take some time for her to be back at full-strength on the court, he’s anticipating her return nearly as much as she is, calling her the team’s “rock.”
“I’m going to be back for the first game, luckily, because I wasn’t able to play the scrimmages,” Lomeli-Capen said. “I’m like 95-percent there… I’m right on that edge.”
Despite graduating four seniors from last year’s squad, the Lady Cabs are returning a majority of the team’s biggest impact players. Aside from Mallon and Capen, Perkins also has seven other returning players on this year’s squad who helped aid the team in reaching the big dance last year.
Senior Ayanna DeJesus didn’t get to see a ton of action last year on the court, but Perkins says she’s put in so much work and she’s taken a huge step in her growth.
“She’s constantly in the gym, constantly working out,” Perkins said. “She’s going to catch people by surprise. They don’t know a lot about her.”
Senior Milyana Salcido is another player on the roster who has spent countless hours in the gym grinding away with the Lady Cabs throughout the years. Noting her confidence in her own abilities has finally reached where it should be, he’s excited to see what she’s able to do under the spotlight this year.
“That’s a kid who can jump out of the gym,” Perkins said. “She’s gonna sky and jump over people for rebounds, jump up and block shots, so she’s gonna be a great added energy for us.”
Other seniors on this year’s squad also include Sherlyn Rios-Arvayo, Brilynn Molera, Aliana Soto and Lexie Alcantar.
Junior Gertie Munoz, who also made it to the state championships for golf, is someone who Perkins says brings the hype to the team.
“We call her Gerdalert,” Perkins said. “She’s got that spunk, that fire that gets you going. She’s a team player and she’s improved her game.”
Perkins noted Munoz has seen tremendous change in her overall shooting abilities and knows she’s only going to get better, especially with her positive attitude.
Junior Bianca Castillo is someone who Perkins is counting on to help generate some offense with her ability to hit jump shots, and believes junior Kayla Bailey is going to sneak up on people this year with how fun she is to watch.
“I’m expecting a lot from her,” Perkins said of Bailey as he discussed her taking on a bigger role this year. “She’s gonna open the floor for us, she’s super creative when she gets in the paint. It’s not going to be a regular lay-up.”
While she was only a freshman on last year’s team, there’s a different kind of passion that sophomore Nevaeh Urenda brings to the floor. Her mom was a former Lady Cab graduating in 2001, who helped build and establish the program into what it is today. Urenda embodies many of the same traits as her mother.
“She’s a gym rat,” Perkins said. “She’s going to be driving the ball to the basket, penetrating. She’s going to handle the ball a lot.”
For Urenda, it’s a unique opportunity and a bond between her and her mother she’ll always cherish.
“I feel like it’s pretty cool, like it’s running in the family,” Urenda said. “Hopefully I can get a State Championship [ring] and we can have one together.”
The overall look for Flowing Wells may be slightly different on the court this year, even from what we saw over the summer. Since former starting point guard Leamsi Acuna transferred to Powerhouse Hoops in Phoenix just a few weeks ago, Perkins said the point guard position is going to be run “by committee.”
While it may sound concerning, it actually will allow for more girls to see the court and possibly open up more opportunities on the floor.
“(Mallon) is the 5A player of the year, so a lot of stuff is going to run through her,” Perkins said. “But everyone is going to get touches, the ball is going to move a lot, and we’re just going to keep working for good team shots from our kids.”
With so many seniors on Perkins squad, he’s excited for what this team is capable of on the floor if they work together and execute. The team has been working hard on improving communication on the court, moving the ball more to set up a good team shot and improving their shooting.
Aside from that, their continuous work in the offseason provided additional opportunities for the team to grow closer with each other. It’s something Perkins knows will be essential this year, and it’s one of his personal favorite parts of coaching.
“The kids love each other, I think that’s the first thing,” Perkins said. “They love playing basketball, that’s the second thing … They’re just fun. They’re coachable, we have that connection where they get it and they understand. We laugh, we joke, they just like being here.”
Flowing Wells has a grueling schedule from the start this year. Perkins had the girls participate in a number of big tournaments over the summer in hopes of preparing for this season as they face a whole new set of challenges with the teams in 4A.
“Our schedule is loaded in our own region,” Perkins said. “To play Salpointe home and home, Pueblo home and home, Sahuaro home and home, that’s going to be where the strength of our schedule lies.”
“I’m just excited for more competition,” Lomeli-Capen said. “In our region having Salpointe and Pueblo is going to be a lot more challenging and a lot more fun… It’s better for us to prove ourselves that we can play with people who are better, because I think it’s a good test.”
The Lady Caballeros will participate in two really big tournaments this year outside of their own Holiday event during Winter Break. Before Christmas, they’ll travel to Mesa to participate in the Nike Tournament of Champions at Legacy Sports Complex, as well as a team trip to Douglas.
Perkins said the Lady Cabs will remain competitive by continuing to execute in the areas where they know they excel; Playing gritty and not letting up.
“Each kid has a strength,” Perkins said. “So we’re just going to play to their strength, and try to get them in a spot to be successful.”
Perkins also noted he’s happy to see Arizona finally add a shot clock for basketball. He says he feels it will reward teams for working hard defensively and it’s going to force teams to play smarter offensively.
“I think it’s going to promote better basketball,” Perkins said.