Right behind Desert Vista High School, there is a place that the members of the Thunder basketball team have got to know very well. A hill.
Tony Darden, who is in the midst of a fantastic first season as the head coach for Desert Vista, inherited some tremendous talent, but needed a buy-in for them to reach their full potential. So the new coach put away the basketballs, the gym shoes and went outdoors to what is now being referred to as “the hill.” A place where at that time, was a spot the team absolutely dreaded.
But now it’s a place they all look back on as where it all began.
“That is where it all started for a lot of these guys,” added Desert Vista Head Coach Tony Darden. “Not knowing me, not knowing about what I was about. They though they were going to be on the basketball court, no, they were going to run these hills with no balls. They buy in started from there.”
The buy-in has been clear as the Thunder who finished 16-12 last season and this season have just four losses and are in the final four of the division I state tournament. For one player in particular, they buy-in has lead to incredible potential being reached by senior big man Brandon Clarke.
As a junior, Clarke stood 6-5 and just 170 pounds averaging 9.5 points per game and just over five rebounds. As a senior, he has grown two inches, added at least ten pounds of muscle and averaging over 17 points and eight rebounds now to this point.
For Clarke, like many of the players, the time where it all began to change for him was time spent away from the court and on the hill.
“I am pretty sure it was when we were on the hill running everyday,” recalled Clarke. “Coach would tell me ‘Brandon Clarke, this would pay off,’ and it has so far.”
People who have watched Clarke over the last couple of seasons knew he had the ability and the intangibles. There was just one key piece missing.
“Confidence,” said Clarke. “They put so much confidence in me and they really showed me that I could be dominant.”
“He’s completely different,” mentioned Coach Darden. “I just think he is starting to get that confidence. We have been day after day, practice after practice trying to instill that confidence in him and let him know, ‘Hey! You’re our guy!’ He is still not as aggressive as we would like but he is aggressive enough at this point.
Clarke has easily been one of the most, if not the most, improved players in Arizona this season. He plays above the rim, he has improved his intensity and effort on defense as well as on the offense glass and now the Thunder run their offense through him with the inside-out offense. If the continued growth and improvement continues from one offseason to the next, San Jose State is getting a steal in a player coming in next season.
Clarke credits the coaching staff for his growth, as well as the growth of the entire team.
“They brought in a whole new atmosphere,” explained Clarke of the new coaching staff. “They helped us with our playing and coming together really. They fixed so many cracks that we had in our offense and in our defense and have helped us so much overall.”
The Thunder are now on to the semi-finals after putting on a great show against Mesa in the quarters. Last weekend, the began the preparation for their showdown with the Jackrabbits began at that dreaded hill. A place where the team with every passing week, continues to come together.
“I have full confidence in this team that we can beat any team here,” Brandon Clarke stated.
Tip-off between the Thunder and the Mesa Mountain View Toros for a trip to the state title game is at 6pm at GCU.