Junior Imani Crawford-king defends against Kellis players.

Verrado girls basketball coach Vernon Beard has always had seniors on his roster. This year is different. Despite the absence of upperclassmen, the team started the season 4-4 on the strength of talented young players.

In August, the young women came in ready to condition and work out. They didn’t know the seniors weren’t going to try out.

“They’re growing every game,” Beard said. “I’m very pleased with where we’re at right now. We won the games we should have won, and we battled in the games we lost.”

Two of Verrado’s four wins came in the Scorpion Shootout tournament at Desert Edge High School, while the other two were power-points victories. One of those was a one-point win against Gilbert Williams Field on November 28.

“The game was back and forth.There was a lot of energy,” Beard said. “Being the first (power-points) game, their eyes were a little ‘wow,’ but once they got their legs under them, they were doing things the way we practice it.”

Sophomore Nicole Castellanos scored 28 points in that game, making 11 of her 14 field goal attempts. The Lady Vipers were routed 74-30 by Scottsdale Chaparral on November 30, but they responded with a 58-44 victory against Surprise Willow Canyon the next day.

Beard explained the team didn’t play well November 30, but it came back December 1 against Willow Canyon.

“My two freshmen led us in scoring,” Beard said.

Maya Rubio had 20 points in that game, while Yasmeen Beltran added 19. Danielle Martinez is another freshman.

“They’re starting to see that there’s a reason they were put on varsity, because they have varsity skills,” Beard said. “When they start believing in themselves a little bit more and stop looking on the roster and seeing ‘freshman’ by their name, just play basketball, they’re going to be something to reckon with come January.”

Rubio is the one Beard said people are going to read about years from now. She’s already 5-foot-11.

“She’s just a real hard worker,” Beard said. “She’s the type where, on Saturday night I’ll get a text message, ‘Coach, can I come shoot the ball?’ She’ll get in the gym and get 300, 400 shots up. She has the talent, and she can play almost any position.”

Verrado’s captain is Imani Crawford-King. She’s one of only two juniors on the team, but has been a varsity player for three years, so she understands what it takes to be a leader, Beard said.

“She’s had captains before who helped leave the blueprint,” Beard said. “She’s a 4.0 kid, real mature young lady, so I think it was just a natural progression and her being (captain) was a logical choice. She’s been really vocal in helping the young ladies in the maturation process of playing varsity basketball, being the coach on the floor.”

The other junior is Andrea Munoz. She transferred from Millennium, so she had to sit out the first nine power-points games of the season.

“She’s coach Andrea right now, waiting for her time,” Beard said.

Verrado doesn’t have a very deep bench, carrying only 10 players and going just six deep in its rotation. Sophomore Grace Johnson is the sixth man. What they lack in depth, they make up for in friendship, Beard said.

“We’ve done a lot of team bonding, gone to the movies together, gone to eat,” Beard said. “In women’s basketball it’s imperative the girls like each other, and they really care for each other.”

Verrado was scheduled to open 5A Desert West Region play December 19 hosting Agua Fria, its last power-points game before the holiday break. Beard knows his team is going to take its lumps being so young, but he said the girls will compete in every game.

“Our goal every season is to make the state playoffs, no matter who comes into the gym,” Beard said. “So, we all do the same conditioning drills, we do the same workout drills. It’s about players getting better every year. The goal is to make the playoffs, and shame on us if we don’t. They bought in. The game is 60-70 possessions, and one or two possessions of them having freshman brain farts isn’t going to lose us a ballgame. I have the utmost confidence in all of them.”