2023-24 Boys Basketball

NOTEBOOK: No. 1 Sunnyside exhibits class after upset loss in 6A quarterfinals to No. 8 Mesa

Angel Bracamontes-Pulido tries to maneuver past two Mesa defenders (Stephanie van Latum/Special to AllSportsTucson.com)

When the final horn sounded Saturday and No. 1 Sunnyside knew it lost its first game of the season at the worst time — in the quarterfinals of the 6A state tournament — Blue Devil goalie Miguel Lugo walked to nearby Mesa forward Leobard Vega and hugged him in a long embrace.

Some of Sunnyside’s players looked stunned after the 2-1 defeat while others were distraught, openly showing their emotion, following the setback at Sunnyside to the eighth-seeded Jackrabbits.

Lugo showed class as did Sunnyside as a whole, led by coach Casey O’Brien, who is a second dad to many of the southside kids on his team.

Although a few calls did not go the Blue Devils’ way by the officials — which contributed to the frustration of the team and their fans under a warm sun — O’Brien was gracious toward Mesa.

“They beat us and I give them a lot of respect because they had a lot of heart,” O’Brien said of the Jackrabbits, who improved to 16-2-1. “This is a hard day to play. It’s warmer than usual, tough conditions and that team just grinded through the whole thing and I respect them for that.”

Sunnyside, the No. 16 team in the nation according to MaxPreps, finished 23-1-1 in a season in which it appeared the Blue Devils were destined for their second state championship in five years.

“We’ve had the schedule that’s really kind of set us up for something like this,” Mesa coach T.J. Hagen said. “We absolutely respect what Sunnyside did this season. They did an outstanding job. They’re an unbelievable team. You can see it on the field today.

“But we can’t be scared. We couldn’t have any fear of going into today’s game because we know that we’re capable of doing good things.”

Mesa’s regular-season schedule included games against No. 2 San Luis (match ended in a scoreless tie) and defending 6A state champion Perry (Jackrabbits won 2-1 in overtime).

Their losses were close to Desert Vista (14-4-4 when it lost in the first round of the 6A tournament to Phoenix Sunnyslope) and Mesa Mountain View (in the 6A semifinals).

The Jackrabbits lost each of those matches by 2-1 scores, including in overtime against Desert Vista.

Mesa also soundly beat 5A semifinal teams Casteel and Campo Verde by scores of 5-0 and 6-0, respectively.

The Jackrabbits will have a rematch with No. 4 Perry on the road in the semifinals on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Sunnyside had a tough-luck draw to face such a team as Mesa in the early rounds of the tournament.

The Blue Devils needed to play at their best to achieve a win despite the No. 1 vs. No. 8 seeding disparity.


Sunnyside had its opportunities, tripling the amount of shots on goal than Mesa, but the Blue Devils’ timing was a little off and shots went slightly off the mark. Passes also did not connect close to the net for higher-percentage shots like they have earlier this season for the Blue Devils.

Mesa senior goaltender Kevin Araujo also had numerous saves.

Drawing the ire of Sunnyside, a penalty was called in the box resulting in a successful penalty kick by Mesa’s Evan Romero to give the Jackrabbits the first goal of the game at the 15-minute mark.

Sunnyside had many shots on goal, including a 25-yard try by Angel Bracamontes-Pulido that hit the crossbar and bounced away at the 25-minute mark.

Eythan Mancilla put Sunnyside on the board with 18 seconds to spare in half to tie the game at 1.

Sunnyside did not have as many shots on goal in the second half but came close at the 77-minute mark with two close attempts in front of the net by Aaron Abarca off a pass by Bracamontes-Pulido that were denied by Araujo and defender Eddy Mbugua.

Only a minute later, Mesa striker Giovanni Fierro broke free from Sunnyside’s defender to the left of the net and scored.

Sunnyside could not get a shot on goal in the last two minutes.

“I know we talked about being locked in and focused and that’s really what it comes down to,” O’Brien said. “In those (potential scoring) moments you have to be so prepared to just do whatever with every scenario that’s going to come up to you. You just have to be prepared for it.

“The backside tappings, for example, you just have to expect that ball even if it doesn’t come and that’s tough.”


Sahuaro’s Steve Botkin is at 636 career victories, which is No. 1 historically in Southern Arizona and No. 4 in the history of the state (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

No. 1 Salpointe, No. 4 Sahuaro, No. 11 Flowing Wells and No. 12 Pueblo are all in the 4A girls basketball state playoffs again largely because of their established coaches.

Salpointe’s Joseph Luevano (88-12, fourth year), Sahuaro’s Steve Botkin (636-203, 29th year), Flowing Wells’ Michael Perkins (341-208, 19th year) and Pueblo’s Izzy Galindo (215-106, 12th year) have a combined record of 1280-535 (.705 winning percentage) in a total of 64 years of coaching.

All have coached their schools to the state championship game. Luevano coached Salpointe to the 4A state title in the 2021-22 season and Perkins led Flowing Wells to the 4A title in the 2007-08 season.


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 in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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