AVONDALE — In its first year of existence, St. John Paul II Catholic High School, the far West Valley’s first Catholic high school, is already filling its trophy case.
The school’s Lady Lions, fielding a unit of nine freshmen and three sophomores, captured the Canyon Athletic Association title in girls basketball with a 65-39 win Feb. 18 at Talking Stick Arena in Phoenix over top-ranked Salt River High School.
“Winning a state championship is rare at any level, but I can’t recall a first-year school ever winning a state title, especially with nine freshmen and three sophomores. I am extremely proud of our team and coaching staff. They played the right way all season, and their hard work paid off,” said Athletics Director Arthur Walker.
“We were ready — physically and mentally — putting everything we had into this game but also having fun,” said forward Kayla Cervantes, 14, a freshman and parishioner at St. William in Cashion.
Without an experienced squad or prolific scorers, head coach Gabriel Green emphasized tenacious defense and extra conditioning.
“We were blessed. We didn’t have any major injuries, and no one missed major time,” said Green. “We had a lot of good athletes on our team and no egos. Life experiences for me, including playing college ball, taught me that hard work always gets you through anything.”
The strategy worked.
“It was a pretty amazing season. We were actually beating [older teams] by a lot,” said forward Mia Gonzales, 14, a freshman and parishioner at St. Thomas Aquinas, also in Avondale.
“Other teams by second half would be run down and tired. We would feel fresh. We made sure they didn’t score any points on us.”
The team’s foundation, though, was spiritual.
“We would start our practices in prayer, asking God to help us do our best, and thanking Him for letting us win and advancing,” in the playoffs, Gonzales explained. “We would end practices with prayer, usually a ‘Hail Mary.’”
“That does inspire us. We [would] feel more secure,” added Cervantes.
After a couple of losses in a Thanksgiving Holiday Tournament, St. John Paul II won all of its remaining games, finishing 16-0, including the title contest.
Formed in 1999, the Canyon Athletic Association is an alternate league for smaller schools and others such as St. John Paul II that are still populating a full student body, Green noted. CAA also is a good vehicle for charter schools, which typically carry a smaller enrollment than larger public and parochial schools.
With St. John Paul II due to have its first junior class, the school will move in Fall 2019 to the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), where they will face larger teams with more depth.
In just a year, the ever-growing Catholic campus has a championship tradition to build on.
“This has been a huge boost to the school. It just adds to the culture of excellence and hard work, based in prayer and community we are seeking to grow here in the West Valley,” said Matthew Gonzales, St. John Paul II’s Director of Admissions and Marketing.
“It’s more than about our team winning,” said Green. “I told the girls after the [championship] game, ‘Your classmates are going to look up to you. You’re a champion. Take what we did here and go out and spread that around.’”