Now Boarding: Shadow Mountain, Destination: New York City

by Justin Vargas | Posted on Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Shadow Mountain does not always do things the way of the wave. They will blow you out by 50 points without an apology or even a sympathy nod. Their star junior guard Jaelen House will let you know when he is in his vibe and his backcourt mate, Jovan Blacksher, will make you look foolish as a defender… And then the crowd will let you know about it!

Head Coach Mike Bibby has built a local juggernaut in the Valley. He has transformed his alma mater into a national powerhouse with next-level players rolling through the program in a system that any real hooper would love to run in. They press full-court. They run you out of the gym. They do not have a player that sniffs anything over 6-foot-5, yet they rebound at a high rate and have multiple guys that make a side-gig out of pinning shots off the backboard.

But it is more than just what meets the eye when the lights come on. It’s more than just the fact that you will be hard-pressed finding someone that can tell you the last time that they lost to a team from the state of Arizona.  What you, and what most, don’t see is the preparation that they put into every game. Forget the fact that they are loaded with guys that will play this game at the next level. Realize that even though they have all the tools in the toolbox, they sharpen those tools by sending out coaches to scout teams that they will probably blow out by 30 anyway. There are no stones left unturned.

If you are heading into a game with Shadow Mountain and your record is 4-12 at the time, you can best believe you will still see a Shadow Mountain coach somewhere in the stands before you are set up to play them. They will know your best player and they will know who to target. Then when the ball goes up in the air, they will attack your Ace like a pack of wild wolves.

Most will talk about the elite-level backcourt they have in House and Blacksher. And rightfully so. In my opinion, Blacksher is the best pure point guard this state has, and it’s not even close. House takes the ball to the rack and hits the deck about as often as D-Wade in his prime. 6-foot-4 sophomore “manimal” Shemar Morrow is widely known for his powerful dunk displays and crazy athleticism. However, there are more than a few guys on that team that do not get talked about or inked down as much as they probably should.

Chalk it up to hype trains or chalk it up to good players playing at a school full of them. But the facts are that 6-foot-5 senior forward Immanuel Allen sacrifices his perimeter skills for the much-needed toughness and physicality he brings in the paint. He is as much of an athlete as you will find in the state and he does possess some perimeter skills that need to be developed but are not non-existent. 6-foot-5 junior wing Antonio Reeves can shoot the leather off the ball and is usually the beneficiary of great ball movement and aggressive guard play out on the 3-point line. He is by far the team’s best game-time shooter.

6-foot-4 junior wing/forward Jalen Williams is a 3-sport athlete that has a knack for making basketballs look like post-it notes on backboards. Oddly enough, he may be the best pure athlete on the team. And then there is a 5-foot-5 senior point guard named Ty Funk. Before you ask… who?!  If I have my guess right, he is one of the most active players in practice but is aware he will not see the floor often. If you talk to any top college program, they will tell you that they have a practice guy that goes as hard as any star they have and gets those guys war-ready for the big games. They infuse energy and care genuinely about the team. When Shadow is going on one of their crazy runs, it is usually Funk who is off the bench cheering them on. Those are the intangibles that make a great team special.

Shadow Mountain did not get their ranking by blowing local teams out by 50 that, quite honestly, do not belong in the same conference as them. However, they played two of California’s top teams in this season’s Hoop Hall West showcase, Sierra Canyon and Chino Hills. Sierra Canyon came into that game as the #18 team in the nation and gave the Matadors all they could handle. Sure, there was that questionable (at best) call where they counted a Sierra Canyon put-back at the buzzer that appeared to be about 1.5-2 seconds after the buzzer, but nevertheless, the game went into Overtime. And that is when the Coach Bibby’s squad showed their battle-tested ways and gritted out a 70-68 victory.

After that close call they went on a 3-game tear against inferior local competition before hitting the road to play in the Monteverde Tournament in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Their first game was one of their more impressive wins, routing Westminster Academy 99-72. So that can tell you one thing, when the lights get brighter, this group stands up a little taller. Jovan Blacksher is not an undersized guard that is so highly under-recruited that it should be a felony. Jaelen House is not “all hype” and does not care about the opposing crowds “over-rated” chants. They come more alive when most need CPR to get them going.

Shadow would finally suffer their first loss in a hard-fought battle with Findlay Prep. Findlay Prep marches out two guys well over 7-feet and is filled with high-major talent. The definition of a national powerhouse. Shadow fought but could not overcome the size barrier in the end and finally took their first L, losing by 9. But if you are a real competitor and a real gamer, you know one thing, all losses are not bad losses! The real one’s grow and learn from them. They articulate and calculate their next move. That’s not only what the player’s were able to do, but the coaching staff as well.

On February 1st they had possibly their toughest local match-up against a Buckeye team that had two Division-I prospects on it, Tay Boothman and Otis Frazier III, and hadn’t lost a game in the state either. With a little bit of built up hype, the gym was packed and the stage was set. Buckeye came out of the gates swinging, hitting deep 3’s and making key defensive plays to keep them going. A pro-style step-back move from behind the 3-point line would break a tied game right before halftime. However, Buckeye was pumped. At the time, Shadow Mountain was the 8th ranked team in the country, and Buckeye was in it. However, Shadow came out of the locker room throwing haymakers. Blacksher started to come alive, House overwhelmed Buckeye’s guards. Shadow pulled away and won by 20.

Shadow breezed through the early rounds of the playoffs without a care in the world. Most anticipated a rematch between them and Buckeye at Grand Canyon Arena. But Salpointe, armed with Majok Deng and Evan Nelson, spoiled that. Instead, it was Salpointe who was the one ready to show up and steal a championship. I was not able to be there for that one. Instead, I was attached to my phone watching updates on Twitter and seeing Salpointe mount a 20+ point lead on the defending state champs. Most were losing their mind that Shadow might not win this thing. That they would fall, and ultimately lose their top-10 ranking.

On a side note, people need to understand. If a top team in California or a top prep school loses a game to one of the state’s or nation’s top teams, their ranking does not slip that drastically. If Shadow loses just one, to a high-quality opponent with two high-major prospects, they drop drastically. It is the Arizona bias.

Now getting back to that 20-point deficit. While others were clamoring at the fact that the team that blows everybody out by 40 might end up losing this thing, I was saying something more along the lines of “how many minutes until Shadow makes a 20-point run and makes this thing dramatic?” Turns out, they made me look like a semi-smart man. They came back with a 4th quarter flurry and the rest is history. Yet another State Championship for the Matadors and start prepping the bigger fish in the frying pan, the Dick’s Nationals in New York City.

Anyone who is in the basketball community knows this is not the last and final coaching spot for Head Coach Mike Bibby. He will move on after this and undoubtedly do some great things at the next level. He has the connections and owns the brand of basketball to do it. But he also has the desire to do it. For those of you who thought that this was his way of coaching his son or his nephew, put it in reverse and park those thoughts. There is little doubt he will move on after this. If your asking my opinion, he will recruit as good as anyone and he will find a way to win. Some people are just born winners. Mike Bibby is a born winner. He won as a Matador in High School. He won a National Championship at Arizona. And he had some of the more impressive playoff runs the city of Sacramento has ever seen in the prime of his career when he paired up with the likes of Chris Webber, Peja Stojakavic, Vlade Divac, Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson.

If you ever have a conversation with Shadow’s Assistant Coach August Mendes, you will see that this team takes on a little bit of his passion as well. You can hear it in his voice. The passion he has for the game and this team. How much he believes in every player on the roster. He is a Chicago native and approaches the game with a mix of knowledge, understanding and an edge. A conversation about basketball could stretch from the intended 15 minutes to well over an hour until he cuts it off by saying, “I’m about to work-out Jaelen, can I call you later?” And then you forget that you left you chicken in the oven while you were talking to him and you open the oven door to nothing but smoke and the chicken resembles a piece of charcoal instead of the delicious bird it was intended to be. If you ask anyone around the program, Mendes is as important piece to this puzzle as any.

If you have been living under a rock for the last 5-6 years and I am somehow enlightening you to what this program is doing, that is amazing. Now you understand with the rest of the state that they have built something special. This team went 27-1 this year. They won the state title and are the #4 ranked team in the nation. They leave for New York on Wednesday and will be competing for the National Championship. The squad from North Phoenix, Arizona. The team without a player over 6’5” in a tournament full of giants. There are no projected NBA players on this roster. There are no McDonald’s All-Americans. So this team goes from being the overwhelming favorite in every game you will see them in the state of Arizona, to the underdog. Yes, you heard that correctly, Shadow Mountain is an underdog. They will travel 3,000 miles to play University School out of Florida. Just about every national media outlet that covers high school basketball has Shadow Mountain getting beat in the first round. “They are too small. Not enough talent for the national level.”

One thing for sure, two things for certain. Shadow Mountain will not ever go down without a fight. If you knock them down, they will get back up. There will be no easy victories against them and if you go into a match-up ever thinking that, you will be awaken very fast. They will blitz you before you can blink.

Shadow Mountain will represent not only themselves, their families and their following that has become nothing short of viral, but they will be representing the state of Arizona and our basketball community. I don’t know about you, but that is enough to cheer for and celebrate for me.

Rep us well and hold it down, Shadow! #Respect #BeRelentless #NoSurrender #NoRetreat

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