Summer play a unique experience for high school hoopers

Sunrise Mountain boys’ basketball celebrates a silver bracket championship at the Bobby Hurley Team Camp at Arizona State University on June 30

A group of players, drinking newly bought sports drinks and typical high school stadium food like hot dogs and candy due to a lack of other options, crowded both hoops to take a precious few warm-up shots while the teams actually using a high school’s lone basketball court for their summer game rested at halftime.

The officials shooed the shooters off the floor as the buzzer sounded, signaling the start of the second period, in an attempt to hurry the actual game’s players onto the floor so the all-day tournament would not go longer than necessary.

One June tournament may make a single free throw count as two points, rather than shooting two one-point shots at the line while the clock runs, in addition to other time-saving rule changes. A newcomer might find bizarre a coach anxiously asking the referee — who is on his fifth game officiated in six hours, with two more to go — before the jump ball about exactly how many timeouts the team has, or other rules that vary at each competition.

None of it is particularly abnormal to those used to high school summer basketball. Throughout June, nearly every school with a varsity squad in Arizona participates in a variety of local leagues, weekend tournaments and summer practices before the top players return to club basketball teams in July. Incoming players and returning starters alike give up a month of their summers to either try and earn, or keep, their roles with the teams come the regular season in the winter sports season.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association, the regulatory body that oversees extracurricular activities for most schools in the state, does not allow coaches to make practices and games mandatory in the summer months.

Attendance varies, with players participating in other sports or gone due to other obligations. A state-championship contender might one night play its entire JV in a varsity league game, with its starters resting or at another event entirely, and their opponent has no idea how they stack up against the fully loaded group.

Take Greenway coach Jay Montoya’s stance after the Demons beat Notre Dame Prep in Thunderbird High School Summer League play.

“Today we had most of our players, and I’m going to guess they didn’t. Another night we might be missing some, while another team has every varsity player. You just don’t know night to night,” he said.

Despite the events being nonmandatory by state rule, the majority of coaches expect their top players to show up as much as possible.

Sunrise Mountain boys’ coach Gary Rath expects his varsity contributors come the regular season to have spent a lot of time with the team in June.

“If you have a kid that’s not showing, that’s not going to make the decision, but it’s certainly a mark against you. It’s not a positive. Some kids play other sports or have other obligations, and that’s fine and we get it, though. But if not, you’re going to want to be out here,” he said.

For a young team like the Ironwood girls’ squad, with coach Jamie Fellows invested in creating a new culture, getting as many different bodies on the floor is a blessing. She can change lineups, play girls at different positions on the court and change nearly everything about the team’s strategy from one game to another.

Because the games do not matter for the AIA playoffs, a loss, especially to a team the varsity might dominate, does not hurt so badly. It hurts even less if a coach can get freshman and JV players experience against other teams’ top rosters to see the speed and intensity of that level early on in their high school days.

“More kids are getting more varsity-like exposure, where you can see how some kids play together on the court, or how a certain kid does in a different position. It’s great,” Fellows said.

While implementing new strategy, the more repetitions against different opponents and styles of play is crucial to a young team’s development. At some June weekend tournaments, teams advancing far in the bracket might play up to seven or eight games in a three-day span. 

That’s just more opportunities to tinker with lineups and called plays on the floor.

“You have the chance to go up against a bunch of different defenses when you play a lot of games. You can kind of see what everyone does differently, and then you get more chances to get better,” Verrado senior Taevry Phillips said.

However, the gratuitous amount of running and training can be hard on young bodies. Often, games are played at the same intensity as they would be in the regular season. The win-loss records do not matter in the standings, but the falls to the ground after a foul still hurt. The miles run still wear on tired legs.

Coaches are often forced to play more kids in a game than their normal rotations, to make up for a season’s worth of games in about a third of the time and not injure or wear out any contributors.

“Some teams play 20, 30 games in June. That’s a season in itself in one month,” Montoya said.

However, the players ultimately are the ones making the choice to play. It is not a punishment to play more basketball for kids already signed up to do so in the winter.

Despite needing significant rest after hard days of lifting and practice days following a long weekend of games, Sunrise Mountain junior Colin Carey said the experience in summer basketball is worth the effort, no matter the amount of time it costs.

“It’s just fun being around the guys you enjoy hanging out with and playing, which we all enjoy,” Carey said.