After two years of going through most of the competition in the 5A conference, the Flowing Wells Lady Caballeros expect a change of pace when they return to 4A.
The Lady Cabs have made it to the state championship for the past two seasons, and with the addition of the Open Division this year, they know it’s a whole new game.
“I like the idea of the open,” old coach Michael Perkins said. “When you talk about a state champion, people want to go out and compete and say, ‘Who are the top eight teams in the state?’ So let those eight teams in the state go out and compete.
While Perkins knows there is still a grueling journey between them and the playoffs, he is confident in his team’s ability to get the job done this year. While there may be some tough moments along the way, he noted how much more the team takes away from those games and the growth they can see afterwards.
While it sounds like a drop to 4A would result in an easier path back to the championship, that’s hardly the case.
The change puts them in the 4A Kino region, arguably one of the toughest in Arizona as they each face Canyon del Oro, Pueblo, Sahuaro and Salpointe Catholic at least twice this season.
Perkins said he hopes that with the move to 4A Kino Region, their old rivalry with Salpointe Catholic, the 2022 4A State Champions, will be reinstated on the hardwood.
The division also arguably presents more challenges, as the 4A Girls tend to be more competitive than 5A, but Perkins knows there’s good competition all over Arizona.
“Wherever you are, you’re going to be playing against good teams,” said Perkins. “Wherever we are, I can’t control that, but we’re going to play basketball in Flowing Wells.”
Perkins returns nine players from last year’s second team, including star seniors Marine Mallon and Sydney Lomeli-Capen. It’s also a senior-heavy roster, with eight of the 17 girls graduating in the spring.
Mallon finished her junior year averaging a double-double with 16 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.7 steals per game.
She is an outstanding player on both sides of the ball and was named to the All-Arizona Team in 2022. The senior just signed her letter of intent to continue playing next year at Westmont College in California.
“She’s so versatile,” Perkins said. “She can handle the ball, she can shoot the ball from the outside, she can pound the ball in. She can rebound and do all the gritty dirty work. So a lot of things will go through her mind.
Lomeli-Capen also has the ability to be explosive on the field and especially knows how to use her height in the paint. The major finished her junior year averaging 9.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, a block and a steal per game.
Lomeli-Capen was another critical piece at Flowing Wells who returned to state championship play last season but had unfortunately suffered a worsening battle with dislocating kneecaps. After it happened again in the middle of the championship and she had to watch the team from the bench, Lomeli-Capen had both her knees surgically repaired in the summer.
“The recovery has been tough,” said Lomeli-Capen. “It was mentally challenging, along with physical.”
“She’s an incredibly tough kid who loves basketball,” said Perkins. “She eats, breathes, thinks about basketball all the time… We need her IQ just as much as her physical presence.”
While Perkins understands it will be some time before she is back on the field at full strength, he anticipates her return almost as much as she does, calling her the “rock” of the team.
“I’m happy to come back for the first game because I couldn’t play the scrimmages,” said Lomeli-Capen. “I’m 95 percent there…I’m right on that edge.”
Despite the graduation of four seniors from last year’s roster, the Lady Cabs are returning a majority of the team’s biggest impact players. Aside from Mallon and Capen, Perkins also has seven other returning players on this year’s roster who helped the team reach the big dance last year.
Senior Ayanna DeJesus didn’t see much action on the field last year, but Perkins says she put in so much work and took a huge step in her growth.
“She’s in the gym constantly, working out constantly,” Perkins said. “She’s going to surprise people. They don’t know much about her.”
Senior Milyana Salcido is another player on the roster who has spent countless hours in the gym over the years with the Lady Cabs. Noting that her confidence in her own abilities has finally reached where it should be, he’s excited to see what she can do in the spotlight this year.
“That’s a kid who can jump out of the gym,” Perkins said. “She takes to the air and jumps over people for rebounds, jumps up and blocks shots, so she’s going to be a great added energy for us.”
Other seniors in this year’s squad are also included Sherlyn Rios-Arvayo, Brilyn Molera, Aliana Soto and Lexie Alcantar.
Junior Gertie Munozwho also made it to the state golf championships is someone who, according to Perkins, brings the hype to the team.
“We call her Gerdalert,” Perkins said. “She has that guts, that fire that gets you going. She is a team player and she has improved her game.”
Perkins noted that Munoz has seen huge changes in her overall marksmanship and knows she will only get better, especially with her positive attitude.
Junior Bianca Castilla is someone Perkins counts on to help generate some offense with her jump shot ability, and believes junior Kayla Bailey is going to sneak up on people this year with how fun she is to watch.
“I expect a lot from her,” Perkins said of Bailey as he discussed her taking on a bigger role this year. “She’s going to open the floor for us, she’s super creative when she gets into the paint. It’s not going to be a regular lay-up.”
Although she was only a freshman on the team last year, there is a different kind of passion than being a sophomore Nevada Urenda brings to the floor. Her mother was a former Lady Cab who graduated in 2001, who helped build and build the program into what it is today. Urenda embodies many of the same traits as her mother.
“She’s a gym rat,” Perkins said. “She’s going to drive the ball to the basket, piercing. She’s going to handle the ball a lot.”
For Urenda, it is a unique opportunity and a bond between her and her mother that she will always cherish.
“I feel like it’s pretty cool, like it runs in the family,” Urenda said. “Hopefully I can get a state championship [ring] and we can have one together.
The overall look of Flowing Wells may be slightly different on the field this year, even compared to what we saw this summer. Since former starting point guard Leamsi Acuna transferred to Powerhouse Hoops in Phoenix just a few weeks ago, Perkins said the point guard position will be run “by a committee.”
While it may sound worrisome, it actually allows more girls to see the job and potentially get more opportunities on the floor.
“(Mallon) is the 5A Player of the Year, so a lot of things will be going through her mind,” Perkins said. “But everyone gets touches, the ball is going to move a lot and we just keep working for good team pictures of our kids.”
With so many seniors on the Perkins team, he’s excited about what this team is capable of in the workplace when they work together and execute. The team has been working hard on improving communication on the pitch, moving the ball more to make a good team shot and improving their shot.
Aside from that, their continued work in the off-season provided additional opportunities for the team to grow together. It’s something Perkins knows will be essential this year, and it’s one of his personal favorite parts of coaching.
“The kids love each other, I think that’s the first thing,” Perkins said. “They like playing basketball, that’s the second thing… They’re just fun. They are coachable, we have that connection where they get it and they understand. We laugh, we joke, they just enjoy being here.”
Flowing Wells has had a grueling program from the start of this year. Perkins took the girls to some major tournaments this summer in hopes of preparing for this season as they face a whole new set of challenges with the teams in 4A.
“Our schedule is loaded in our own region,” Perkins said. “To play Salpointe home and home, Pueblo home and home, Sahuaro home and home, that’s where the strength of our schedule lies.”
“I’m just excited for more competition,” Lomeli-Capen said. “In our region, Salpointe and Pueblo is going to be a lot more challenging and a lot more fun… It’s better for us to prove to ourselves that we can play with people who are better because I think it’s a good test.”
The Lady Caballeros will compete in two very large tournaments outside of their own holiday event during the winter break this year. Before Christmas, they travel to Mesa to compete in the Nike Tournament of Champions at the Legacy Sports Complex, as well as a team trip to Douglas.
Perkins said the Lady Cabs will stay competitive by continuing to excel in the areas they know they excel; Play gritty and don’t give up.
“Every child has a strength,” Perkins said. “So we’re just going to play to their strength and try to get them in a place to be successful.”
Perkins also noted that he’s glad Arizona is finally adding a shot clock for basketball. He says he thinks it will reward teams for hard work on defense and force teams to play smarter on the offensive.
“I think it’s going to promote better basketball,” said Perkins.