They haven’t hosted a state tournament game since 2006, or won a playoff game since 2016, but the Sunrise Mountain High School boys’ basketball team is hoping for both in 2020.
As of Jan. 14, the Mustangs are 13-3, sitting atop the standings in the rigorous 5A Northwest Conference. Coach Gary Rath called it “the toughest region in the state,” with five playoff-hopeful teams.
The Mustangs aced their first few tests against solid teams this season. They toppled conference-rival Ironwood in a 78-71 win Dec. 19. They traveled to Horizon and departed with a thrilling 70-68 victory Dec. 6. They battled with Liberty before pulling away an 80-77 win Dec. 3.
“Our guys really want a shot to play for the region championship,” Rath said. “I think our guys know our region is tough and we have to come ready to play every night. I don’t think [being complacent] will be a problem.”
On the Mustangs’ remaining schedule are meetings with each of their conference rivals: Centennial, Sunnyslope and Apollo. They’ll meet Ironwood once more in late January.
Five of the six teams in the 5A Northwest Conference, including Sunrise Mountain, are over .500.
The Mustangs are rich with senior leadership and savvy veterans.
Among them, star center, Tanner Mayer. Mayer, at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, is the team’s leading scorer, averaging a double-double with 20.4 points and 10.9 rebounds per game.
He’s a varsity regular since his sophomore year and steadily improved since. Mayer averaged 10-points per game his sophomore campaign.
“Last year, he added a perimeter jumper to his game where he could take a guy out inside or outside,” Rath said. “From last year to now, he’s added some more ball-handling, so he’s stronger with the ball. He can guard guards better than he could last year.”
Rath said Mayer’s “will to win” is contagious and a driving force to getting the Mustangs back to the postseason.
“He’s become a real leader for us on and off the court. He cannot stand to lose. It’s rubbed off and our guys are getting that attitude like, ‘This winning stuff is fun’. It’s enjoyable.”
Rath said he’s most impressed with his team’s ability to close out and win games.
“Two years ago, we ended up 15-12 and we lost two games. I thought we should have won - that cost us a chance at the state tournament. Last year, we kind of did the same thing – we had three or four games where we could have won. We had our chances to win and close the door and we didn’t and we lost them.
“This year, I think our guys just realized, we have to take advantage of it and we’re not making as many mistakes.”
“We’ve got 13 guys right now, and any one of them can play,” said Rath. “It’s really forcing us to play at a high level because if you don’t, there’s someone else who can come in.”
Sunrise Mountain averaged just shy of 75 points per game. They shoot a collective 48%.
At this pace, the Mustangs could host a playoff game in February.