Morenci basketball boys return six lettermen from 2019 campaign, begin fourth stint for new head coach

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: From left, Junior lettermen Nicolas Hammond, Jeremiah Rojas, and Steven Shawn-Michael Chavez Jr., along with freshman Derek Saenz, run sideline-to-sideline as part of conditioning drills. The three juniors return with five varsity letters between them and Chavez with an all-region honorable mention designation from 2019. Morenci opens the season at home with the Kearny Ray Bearcats on Nov. 26.

By Raymundo Frasquillo

MORENCI – There will be some familiar faces, but the 2020 MHS boys’ basketball team will be different. It has to be. The Wildcats are without 2A East Region and state 2019 Defensive Player-of-the-Year John Olmsted. The 6-10 graduated 4-year MHS letterman took his skills and talents to the Division 1 level. The current Arizona State University first-year team member has been limited to four minutes total in two blowout wins, but will more than likely be on the court longer by the time he earns his academic degree.

Another major difference is 18th-year head coach Tommy Navarrete. The 1970s MHS grad begins his 30th season of coaching, the 18th as a head basketball coach, the 14th as the boys head coach, and is in his fourth stint for Morenci. The retiree played on an unbeaten Wildcats squad under Arizona Hall of Fame coach Stephen L. Hudgens and with classmate Troy Hudson at Eastern Arizona College. The two teammates held fundamental camps locally for several years.

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Coach Tommy Navarrete explains a defensive position to the Wildcats during a recent practice session. The 14th-year boys head coach is in his 30th year of coaching and his fourth stint at Morenci.

Navarrete admits to being “old school,” but is knowledgeable, experienced, and has come out of retirement to help guide the Wildcats. The transition to a new coach and his system will take time. He asks the Wildcats, parents, and fans to be patient.

The Wildcats have 16 games and two tournaments scheduled for the 2020 season. Morenci opens with non-region opponent Kearny Ray Nov. 26 and follows with East Region opponent Pima (Dec. 2).

Six lettermen return from the 2019 campaign, led by two-year letter winners and juniors Steven Shawn-Michael Chavez Jr., Maddux Martinez, and Jeremiah Rojas. Chavez received 2A East Region honorable mention last season. Three one-year lettermen are also back, juniors Nicolas Hammond and Jordan Reyes, and sophomore Christian Mutengela Mpoyo.

Senior Dominik Waters lettered as a freshman and sophomore but did not play last season. The rest of the varsity includes senior Isaiah Nofchissey, juniors Torman Lang and Lance “L.T.” Morey, and freshman Derek Saenz.

Junior varsity team members include junior Jaydin Yazzie; sophomores Nicholas “Nico” Patterson and Tony Roybal; and freshmen Dillen Aker, Gavin Baca, Dimitri Briggs, Jarel Diaz, Gabriel Hernandez, Daylen Johnson, Jalen Kitcheyan, Elijah Leyba, and Marco Muniz.

Morenci went 20-8 overall (14-3 seeding, 11-1 region) in 2019, 19-10 (13-5, 9-3) in 2018, and 16-11 (11-8, 8-4) in 2017. Region standings in the same 3-year span were first of seven (2019), second (2018), and third (2017). The state rankings (ratings) were No. 5 (9.0050) in 2019, No. 12 (5.6576) in 2018, and No. 9 (5.0573) in 2017. Morenci earned two Gold-Ball trophies in the 1970s.

The Wildcats ended their 2019 season in the state quarterfinals, falling 69-72 to No. 4 ranked and 2A East Region runner-up Thatcher. The 2018 campaign ended in the state tourney first round with a 48-72 loss to No. 5 Scottsdale Christian. A play-in 50-52 loss to No. 20 Glendale Prep in Wildcat Memorial Gymnasium kept Morenci out of the 2017 state tourney.

Last season, three seniors and two sophomores started, a senior and freshman made up the Wildcats’ 7-man rotation, and the roster was filled by four sophomores whose playing time remained largely on the junior varsity level.

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Veterans and newcomers alike run sprints during practice sessions as part of their conditioning for the upcoming season.

Season highs included earning the region title after a 40-plus years drought, posting a 20-wins record, earning the state’s top 2A ranking (13.4063 rating) of 48 teams, going 8-2 at home, and having two players accumulate 1,000 points during a 4-year career.

The No. 5 Wildcats began the season by going 2-2 in the Chandler Valley Christian Invitational, downed Thatcher 59-56 in a road region opener, ascended to the state’s top ranking in late January, and had a 9-0 region record when hosting Thatcher. The Eagles left Wildcat Memorial Gymnasium with a 72-69 win. However, since the teams both had identical 11-1 region records, the Wildcats got first place with a 14-3 seeding record versus Thatcher’s 14-4.

Morenci drew a first-round bye as the top seed for the region tourney. Thatcher, Pima, and Benson each advanced ousting Tombstone 72-34, Willcox 60-29, and Bisbee 71-65, respectively. Pima defeated Thatcher 60-39 and Morenci downed Benson 67-40 in the semifinals. The Wildcats cut down the net following a 56-35 win over Pima.

Thatcher (9.7307 rating), Morenci (9.0050), and No. 11 Pima (5.2030) eliminated No. 12 Chandler Prep (3.4175) 65-51, No. 13 Phoenix Country Day School (4.1445), and No. 8 Tucson Saint Augustine Catholic (8.9535) 61-40, respectively, in the state tourney first round; Thatcher ousted Morenci and Pima upset No. 3 Globe (13.5585) 83-68 in the quarterfinals; and No. 1 Scottsdale Christian (15.2998) topped Thatcher 62-46 and No. 2 Whiteriver Alchesay (14.0741) slipped past Pima 61-56 in the semifinals. Scottsdale Christian topped Alchesay 72-41 for the 2019 2A state title.

Patrick Hepper (84-64 overall, 2-4 in state playoff games) was at the helm for five seasons (2015-19).

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