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It’s a week of milestones for Deer Valley — 300 coaching wins, 1,000 points, and a trip to the state

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The No. 7-seeded Deer Valley Skyhawks pulled away from the 10th-seeded Sahuaro Cougars for a 62-33 victory in the opening round of the AIA Class 4A state playoffs Wednesday, outscoring the Cougars 45-25 in the second half.

After the Skyhawks seemingly had a lid on the basket and the score was only 4-4 at the end of the first quarter, Deer Valley coach Jeff Dunn emphasized the importance of an 8-0 Skyhawks run that extended their lead to 17-8 at the end of the first half.

“Super important because a bucket was hard to find,” Dunn said. “It was 4-4 after the first (quarter). Both teams played really well defensively (and) that little run was huge for us because we knew they were a predominantly zone team, so you get a cushion (to shoot) and they have to come out and guard you.”

Despite struggling to make shots early, the Skyhawks locked in on the defensive end and never let up, allowing them to blow the game open when shots started to fall.

“Our defensive effort is always good,” Dunn said. “They play really hard defensively. That’s what I wrote on the board, ‘Rely on your defense because shots aren’t going to go in necessarily,’ but your defense can always be there.”

An important player in the Skyhawks’ offensive awakening was sophomore Jayden Sleeper. It was fair to say the defense was sleeping on his ability to shoot.

“When I hit that first three, it gave me a lot of confidence, actually,” Sleeper said. “I haven’t hit a three in a couple of games, so after I hit that, I felt like I could hit every shot I take, so it really helped me further into the game.”

Playing during the COVID-19 pandemic that delayed the season on multiple occasions and nearly caused it to be canceled, Dunn and his team did not take anything for granted.

“Just being able to play has been a blessing for us,” Dunn said. “(Making a deep playoff run is) always the goal. This Deer Valley program has been really good for many years and it’s a credit to the administration and the players. My staff is really good, and I’ve been blessed here.”

“It means a lot,” Sleeper added. “It hasn’t been easy at all. But for us to get through that and to be where we are now is a great thing.”

The Skyhawks had two milestone ceremonies in their final home game of the season. Dunn reached his 300th win as a head coach at the school earlier in the week, and senior Jackson Leyba passed 1,000 career points during Wednesday’s game.

Dunn didn’t have much to say about his milestone and wanted to acknowledge that his players were most important.

“That’s not important to me; the relationships that come with this is the most important,” Dunn said.

Leyba was excited for his coach, who played a big part in helping him get to his milestone.

“It’s a really big deal and I’ve been a part of it since I was a freshman, so it’s really cool to have a chance to contribute to something cool like that — something that means a lot to him and me,” Leyba said.

Leyba also didn’t want to put the spotlight on himself, instead focusing his excitement for the team getting to advance to the 4A state quarterfinals.

“It’s a big deal to me, but I’m just glad we got the playoff win,” he said. “And it meant a lot to me because it was on my last game on this court, so it was a really special night for me, too.”

Leyba wants to enjoy the win before looking ahead to the next game, when the Skyhawks will travel to Tucson to take on No. 2-seeded Salpointe Catholic.

“We just want to take it one game at a time,” he said. “When we get ready for Saturday, we have a chance to compete, we’re going to get out there, and we’re ready for it.”

In every high school playoff game, there’s always one team that ends its season in heartbreak. On Wednesday, that was the Sahuaro Cougars. Head coach James Henry was proud of the way his players fought on the defensive end to keep themselves in the game for most of the night.

“I was really proud of them,” Henry said. “(During) the first quarter and first half, (it) was a super low-scoring game, and every possession is important when you’ve got a game like that, and we battled. We really battled on the defensive end of the floor, kept ourselves in it for a while, but when you don’t put the ball through the hoop, eventually the game got away from us.”

Henry had a simple message for his team in the locker room after the game that ended the Cougars’ season.

“I just told them how proud I was of them to have played the season that we did in the middle of a pandemic,” Henry said. “The responsibility and the maturity that they showed, being able to get through the last four months without any COVID issues, but still being focused on basketball (and) finishing the season … (I’m) super proud of my guys.”

Battling through a pandemic-ridden season like the Skyhawks and everyone else playing basketball in the country, the Cougars fought through adversity and created memories they will never forget.

“One of the things I told the guys in the locker room is that 20 years from now, they’re going to think back to this season,” Henry said. “This is going to be a memory that they’re going to hold with them forever, and to get through this and have some sense of normalcy and be able to have a game like this in the state tournament with fans and the energy and all of it, it’s one of those things that our guys should be proud of. I hope it’s memories that they take with them for the rest of their lives.”

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