North Valley Christian Academy in Phoenix didn’t have a basketball program until four years ago. The school didn’t even have a varsity team until three years ago.
Now, the Lions are 1A state champions, having defeated Mohave Accelerated Learning Center in the March 16 title game.
“The original group four years ago had six kids. I think we went 3-7,” coach Randy Walker said. “We played not only smaller schools, but bigger schools’ JV teams, and so it’s developed.”
One of those original players, senior Kai Marusteri, said he never expected to win a state title at NVCA when he joined the fledgling program as a freshman.
“To me, this is a blessing from God, because coming to that school,” Marusteri said.
“I didn’t know what that year was going to look like, especially because we weren’t a varsity program yet. The second year, we started to get more guys in, and as they came in, that drastically changed the whole game for us. Seeing all that perseverance and hard work pay off, even when you don’t think there’s hope, that was definitely a blessing.”
Walker, who coached at Cactus Shadows from 1996 to 2001, was ready to give up coaching after his mother’s death, when his son told him his new school needed a coach for its new basketball program.
“My mom got cancer and passed away, so my wife and I left teaching and bought the family business,” Walker said. “I thought I was done teaching and coaching, and then my son, Josh, who is on the team, asked, when he came to NVCA, if I would be interested in coaching the team.
“NVCA didn’t have a team at the time, and so I’d be starting the program with him. So, one thing led to another, he came to school here and they hired me as the basketball coach, and we started the program four years ago.”
The program’s rapid rise to success began last year, when it reached the 1A state championship in its second varsity season. Although they lost that game to Fort Thomas 62-46, Walker said his players were determined to get a second chance at a title.
“Walking off the floor, there was a lot of disappointment, but also a determination to get back to that game,” Walker said. “There was a bitter taste in our mouths, that we didn’t feel like we had played our best game.
“Within the next few days after that game, guys were back in the gym… we didn’t do anything as a team because we couldn’t (due to COVID-19), but guys were working out individually. Braeden Roberts, who was the MVP of our team, was getting up at 3:30 in the morning to go work out, so they made that sacrifice. They didn’t pout that they had lost, they wanted to find a way to get back to that game and be more successful.”
NVCA got its second chance, but it didn’t come easily. Despite having lost only once all season, the Lions were down early in the championship game.
“(Mohave Accelerated) could score inside and out, they were a physical team, they were an excellent rebounding team, so there were some concerns about whether we could be physical enough with rebounding,” Walker said.
“They went on a 9-0 run in the first quarter where they just pounded us on the offensive glass, I think they had seven of those nine points on offensive rebounds.”
Marusteri added, “We weren’t hitting all of our shots. They weren’t all falling. The nerves were starting to get there a little bit. The ball movement could’ve been better. We could’ve taken our time a little bit more on certain plays, but we still won in the end, we grinded it out, in the third quarter especially.”
For Walker, the win is special for multiple reasons. Seeing a program grow from six players to a state champion in four years is incredible on its own, but to do it alongside his son makes it even more memorable.
“It’s awesome. As time progresses, it becomes more and more special, I appreciate it more,” Walker said. “It’s something that can never be taken away from us, and to experience that, it’s more and more special and humbling at the same time, because you realize how many people would love to have that opportunity.
“For us to share that is a very special moment and humbling to be able to do that together. Every coach who has a son on their basketball team dreams of winning a state championship together, and that came true for us, so we’re very blessed and gracious at the same time.”
Marusteri, who is committed to Arizona Christian University, said he believes NVCA isn’t a flash in the pan, and will only continue to climb in the future.
“I have a lot of faith in these guys, I think they have all the potential, they have the perfect framework,” Marusteri said. “Keeping what we have set in foundation there and continuing that, I have a lot of faith that they can carry that torch and bring it to the next level, each and every year.”