Doug D’Amore hasn’t been at Catalina Foothills more than six months, but he knows all about what has happened with the boys basketball team in each of the last three seasons, especially last year.
The Falcons, a heavy favorite to win the Division II state title in 2012-13, were bounced from the second round of the state tournament as the No. 2 seed, following a bye. The sudden end to a practically flawless season marked the third straight year Foothills lost its postseason opener.
D’Amore, the team’s first-year coach, is ready to end that skid. So are star seniors Austin Nehls and Chaz Mack.
“It’s talked about every day,” D’Amore said. “We’re very mindful that the work that is done now is to progress through the state tournament.
“It’s not, ‘Turn the light on when the state tournament comes on,’ it’s ‘Start here and now, every single day, to develop the type of team we need to be come February.’”
Through seven games this year, Foothills is undefeated and has won all but one game by at least 16 points. The senior-laden team kicked off the season with a dominant performance at the Salpointe Tip-Off Classic that ended with a 70-40 win over Phoenix Desert Vista, a squad that has been in the Division I state tournament each of the last three seasons.
It’s been quite the answer for the Falcons, since they lost to 18th-seeded Avondale Agua Fria 82-70 last February, following a 29-3 regular season which included a 19-game winning streak.
“That was the year we could have went really far in the tournament,” said Mack, a 6-6 forward who averaged a double-double last year and is at it again this year. “After that loss there was nothing you could do about it so we went back to the drawing boards.”
Foothills sure did spend a lot of time at the drawing board over the offseason.
Mark Felix, who had been the Falcons coach since 2011, stepped down in May to take over at Ironwood Ridge. Roughly a month later, D’Amore was hired to replace Felix and was essentially thrown straight into the fire.
“I love it, there’s no other way I’d have it,” D’Amore said. “Everyone has been accepting and let me roll the ball out and produce what I thought was going to produce the best effort on the floor.”
Nehls, the son of former UA standout Joe Nehls, said the difference between Felix and D’Amore is that the focus has shifted from offense to defense. The 6-3 guard said more than half of each practice is focused on defensive fundamentals and schemes.
“Our defense leads to a lot of our offense so we’re putting up a lot of points,” said Nehls, the team’s leading scorer this year with 19.6 points a game. “At the same time, our defense has been a lot better than last year because we’re getting a lot of steals and getting out in transition.”
The Falcons have scored at least 60 points in every game this year and are averaging 73.7. On defense, they have given up more than 58 points just once. But, as Nehls said, everyone on the team knows it’s not about how they’re playing now but instead how they play in February.
“That’s why we’re doing as well as we are today,” Mack said. “We went through the heartbreak but now we’re determined to come back.”