New season, new coach and new high hopes. The Coconino boys basketball team is looking to bounce back with the help of returning head coach Mike Moran.
After succumbing to injuries and not making the 4A Conference playoffs last year, the Panthers are hungry for redemption with a roster filled with returning seniors.
“It’s usually the senior class that will take a team to the state tournament, so it means a lot,” said Moran, who guided the Panthers to the playoffs numerous times, including a 4A state semifinals appearance, in his first stint as head coach. “There are a lot of great seniors, great people, great work ethic and really good players, so I’m expecting a lot this year from our senior class.”
Finishing 8-10 overall and 6-6 in the Grand Canyon region, taking third behind rival Flagstaff and Mohave, the Panthers bounced back from a rough 2015-16 season to nearly match their 9-11 2014-15 record.
Returning many of their key contributors from last year, Coconino believes it will be hard to compete with the amount of chemistry this team has built over the years.
“I think our team’s biggest strength is our togetherness,” said 6-foot-5 senior Joram Watson. “We’ve all known each other for a little while and play together well.”
Not to mention the leadership this older team possesses will play a big part in their game, not only this season but seasons to come after them.
“You know most of us [have] like three years on varsity so like just showing the younger guys how to play, how to do things, details, the small things,” said senior guard Harding Eddie. “Just leading guys. Trying to lead by example, pick guys up. It’s hard coming in here every day to practice and go 100 percent.”
A senior to look out for is point guard Emilio Esquivel, the team’s leading returner in assists and steals per game. Esquivel said the team has worked hard to get better and he hopes to make the most of his senior season.
“We improved a lot. Mainly we focused on defense and getting better at that,” Esquivel said. “I’m trying to work on my jump shot and my defense.”
Additionally, senior Brett McGowan returns to the Panthers after averaging 12.0 points in 14 games played a year ago.
Defense seems to be a big thing that the whole team is working on. Moran built a perennial playoff contender by instilling a defensive mindset throughout the program before his departure in 2001. He plans to implement the same basic principles in his second stint as Panthers coach.
“I think what I’ve been known for a little bit is our man-to-man defense, our pressure defense, our up-tempo style of play, really working as a team defensively,” Moran said.
The Panthers host 2A Conference Northland Prep at 7 p.m. Tuesday in their season opener.