A week ago tonight, Deion James scored 22 points and grabbed 19 rebounds for the Empire boys basketball team.
At first glance, it seemed like just another ordinary game for the 6-foot-7-inch junior — but there was something special about it.
James became the first player in Empire’s eight-year history to score 1,000 career points. He surpassed Cole Plouck’s career mark of 913 a week earlier.
“I’m happy I got 1,000, but it’s just another goal,” the team captain said. “I want to keep on going into college and break 1,000 there.”
Heading into Thursday night’s season finale against Cienega, James was averaging 21.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
He’s making a strong case to be Southern Arizona’s best junior, a class that includes other Division I prospects like Sahuaro’s Nate Renfro and Cienega’s Terrence Johnson.
“I can go down low and come up top and play guard,” said James, who has been playing basketball since he was 3. “I might not have all the physical attributes of other players that I need to work on, but I think understanding the game has helped me the most.”
With a complete season remaining in his high school career, James has already set several school records. He holds the single-game and single-season marks for scoring, in addition to the career record. He also holds the career marks for both rebounds and assists.
“Not only is he going to break the records, but he’s going to run away with them,” said Ravens coach Dana Plouck, father of Cole. “He’s such a complete player.”
The elder Plouck is certain James will be the first player from Empire to play major college basketball. Cal Poly, Boise State, Northern Arizona, San Jose State and Tulsa have already shown interest, and James’ status is sure to grow.
“Little by little, his name is getting out there,” said Plouck, who has coached James since he was a seventh-grader. “It’s starting to drum up more and more interest, and we’re starting to get phone calls from places further and further away.”
Just before the winter break, James had the best game of his career and arguably the best game of the season in Southern Arizona, as he scored 42 points and grabbed 25 rebounds in an 82-76 loss to Pueblo.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, James’ impressive figures don’t always translate to wins, just like they didn’t that night. Empire, which was moved up to Division II this year, has won just two of 11 games in which James has scored 20 points or more.
One of those wins came Tuesday night, when he scored a team-high 28 in a 76-74 victory over Amphitheater to help his team snap a six-game losing streak.
The other was when James posted a double-double with 37 points and 17 rebounds in a 91-77 win against Catalina.
However, with just one senior graduating and James headlining a seasoned group, next year could be a major breakthrough for Empire.
“We really feel like the sky is the limit with James and our guys,” Plouck said. “We have the tools to compete and win in Division II, and I think most nights, when we step on the court, we have the best player on the floor.”
Ex-Amphi coach Willard has new gig
Former Amphitheater football coach Brandon Willard is now the coach at Anthem Boulder Creek, a Division I team that went 5-6 last fall.
Willard spent the last two seasons at Amphi, where he replaced Pima County Hall of Fame coach Vern Friedli. After going 1-9 in 2012, the Panthers showed progress last season. Willard led Amphi to a 5-5 mark, had a 2,000-yard passer in senior Ray Holbrook, and boasted two players with more than 850 yards rushing. The third season may have been when it all came together.
Amphi athletic director Armando Soto said Thursday that the school will conduct interviews over the coming weeks and should have a new coach by the rodeo break, which starts Feb. 20.
Parikh, Bhat win tennis titles
Two potential state tennis champions for this spring got an early boost of confidence last weekend at the 44th High School Invitational at the Reffkin Tennis Center.
Salpointe Catholic sophomore Yash Parikh knocked off Catalina Foothills sophomore and reigning Division II state champ Mike Lee for the boys title.
Meanwhile, Kirtana Bhat of Foothills beat Ironwood Ridge’s Kelsey Brown for the girls crown in the first of several meetings to come this spring.