Cactus Shadows High School’s Joey Liberio

Cactus Shadows High School’s Joey Liberio gets around head coach Zach Washut during drills at basketball practice, Wednesday, November 10, 2021, at Cactus Shadows High School in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The only problem with experience is that it takes so long to get it. Unfortunately, for the Cactus Shadow High School boys varsity basketball team, it hasn’t had much time. 

Last season, the team graduated seven seniors and all five of its starters. Head coach Zach Washut and his staff did the math and calculated that those five starters accounted for 93% of the team’s scoring. Returning this year are four varsity players, two of whom had somewhat decent playing time. 

“Varsity experience is lacking this year and that’s our biggest weakness,” Washut said. 

Washut and his athletes spent the summer playing in tournaments to hone their skills. 

“The only way to get that experience is to get in there and do it. So, we tried getting them in games to build that experience up,” Washut said. 

For the first time in his 15-year career, Washut is seeing a freshman on his varsity team. Trey Chemin initially was named to JV, but Washut said he was persuaded to move him up. 

“The first tournament was definitely intimidating. I didn’t know what to expect, especially going against guys that big, like grown men,” Chemin said. “But then after the next few tournaments, they started me, and I felt a little more comfortable in that position.”

Experience is vital for the Falcons if they want to continue their streak of successful seasons. In his fifth year at Cactus Shadows, Washut has led the team to four postseasons, back-to-back region championships, three Elite 8 appearances, and the best single-season win/loss record in the program’s history at 23-4 in 2019. Despite the young team, the goals remain high. 

“So, our first goal is to defend the Nest and defend the region,” Washut said. “Our second goal is just to compete at the highest level that we possibly can. We want to compete and be the best versions of ourselves. And for the third goal, we want to break through and get to the first final four in program history.”

It seems like a lot of pressure, but senior guard Joey Liberio can handle it.  

“I would say our team is confident. We know our goals, we know what we have to do,” said Liberio, a returning varsity player.

On the team since his sophomore year, Liberio is the captain for younger players like Chemin. The two have known each other since Liberio was in fourth grade when Chemin’s family moved into the house across the street. 

“Recently, he’s really taken me under his wing,” Chemin said. “He takes me to school in the morning and takes me to practice early. So, I think that’s really helped me. If I do something wrong or mess up a play, he’ll kind of direct me and help me out.” 

The team’s first real tests are Thanksgiving tournaments in Paradise Valley and Mesa from Monday, Nov. 22, to Wednesday, Nov. 24.  

“We definitely expect to play well and compete. Everything we do, we play to win, but at the same time, I’m excited to see how they handle the first and second real game,” Washut said. 

Last year, the team played in front of limited crowds because of COVID-19. This fall, the stands will be packed and the student section, AKA the Nest, will be buzzing. Washut admitted that it could be intimidating for the players who haven’t experienced it.

Liberio said each player will react to the crowd differently. “I think that depends on the player — if they want to embrace it and if they like playing in front of a lot of people or are they just more of the shy type of player,” he said. 

Overall, the team’s success will come down to chemistry. This starts with the coach-player relationship and trickles down to the work among players. This is a pillar in Washut’s coaching style.

“It is definitely a two-way street. It’s not a dictatorship where it’s my way or the highway,” he said. “We spend a lot of time with our guys asking them what they see, what they like and what they want to run and make sure we have buy-in and input from them.”

Along with that, Liberio said that every player has a role on the team, and if everyone does their role, they will be successful. 

“I would say, just knowing our role and knowing what we have to do, because I think we can get stuff done, we just have to know our role and execute,” Liberio said. 

To create this chemistry, Washut emphasizes the power of community service. 

“Freshman and seniors aren’t really talking so it’s just an opportunity to bond and communicate. At the end of the day, you want your kids to talk and have good relationships and build good character with each other,” he said. 

Like the plays on the court, the players are sold on the importance of community service. 

“It’s kind of like a bonding experience for the team,” Liberio said. 

“It definitely helps getting to know the guys which is kind of what we need for the young roster.”

The team volunteers with food banks, pediatric cancer organizations and teacher appreciation events. On Nov. 15, they filled shoeboxes at Light of the Desert Church for those in underdeveloped countries. 

“It’s a cool opportunity for our guys to bond off the court and make an impact both locally and globally,” Washut said. “I think it’s a must. You want to make sure you’re involved with the community and give back. Life is definitely bigger than basketball and we are giving the kids a chance to see that.”

On and off the court, the Falcons are aspiring to be a unified team to overcome the obstacle of inexperience, and they are confident it is working. 

“A lot of people aren’t expecting us to be anything great this year with how young we are, but I think we can definitely prove them wrong this year,” Liberio said.