By zach alvira
GSN Sports Editor

Six years ago, the Mesquite High girls basketball program turned a corner.
After years of ups and down, the Wildcats made the state tournament. They’ve been an East Valley power since, each team leaning on the previous team for insight into how to be successful. This year’s is the latest in that line.
“The leadership from past girls has really helped us,” Mesquite coach Candice Gonzales said. “The girls have been working so hard, many of them the past three years.”
Senior forward Olivia Champion is among the Wildcats’ scoring leaders, averaging 13.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists.
By her side is fellow senior Zyan Smith, who averages nearly identical statistics — 13.6 points, 7 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
The two are co-captains, along with Maggie Herberger, bringing leadership and experience to an otherwise young team.
“I try to help the girls rather than sit back and watching,” Champion said. “I try to teach them using things I learned from past years. It’s helped me come out of my shell a lot more.”
The seniors witnessed Mesquite’s first two runs to the state-title game. Smith and Herberger were on varsity as sophomores when the Wildcats hoisted the 5A state-championship trophy.
As juniors, they led Mesquite to its third straight championship appearance, but they fell to Chaparral in the title game.
Smith believes that this team, now in 4A, can continue the legacy and return to the title game for the fourth consecutive year.
“We have built a strong bond with this team,” Smith said. “We really strive for everyone to be successful and we feed off of each other’s success. I think that has really helped us this season and it has transitioned into the games.”
Mesquite wrapped up its regular season with a win over Arcadia. At 18-8, the Wildcats finished third-ranked in the conference.
Among the Wildcats’ losses were to top-ranked Shadow Mountain and to Seton Catholic, a game everyone on the team wishes they could have back.
“We didn’t stick to our game plan and we were doing things we never usually do during the season, so that was frustrating,” Gonzales said. “As long as we practice each day and stick to our game plan, those expectations of playing and giving 100 percent will be reached.”
The team blamed the loss to Seton on their lack of aggressiveness on defense, an element of the game that has been a top priority since Gonzales started the program in 1998.
The coach believes that a strong defense creates offense, a belief borne-out frequently this season.
Mesquite allowed 40 or more points in only six games and held opponents to fewer than 10 points twice. When the Wildcats are feeling it on defense, they’re hard to beat.
“Our defense is something that always keeps us in games,” Smith said. “As long as that is solid, our offense will come.”
The Wildcats open the 4A tournament on Tuesday at home, the first step in a playoff journey that they hope ends with them hoisting of another championship trophy at Gila River Arena on Feb. 23.
“We just need to keep pushing,” Smith said. “It’s toward the end of the season and our bodies may try to shut down but we need to keep pushing each other. Hopefully we can do that all the way to the top.”
Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at zalvira@timespublications.com and follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.