When you are a kid playing basketball for the first time, it is easy to dream that you and your buddies will always keep playing together, have fun and win games.
Life rarely works out that way. But Liberty High School seniors Dom Ciccaglione and Cole Roether are still teaming up a decade after playing together for the first time, and the backcourt is the engine room of the high-powered Lions attack.
The guards and another longtime teammate, forward Collin Addy, are the senior leadership trio for the 16-7 Lions, who carried a13-game winning streak until the last night of January. All three, in their own way, are vital cogs to a team that averages 73 points per game, presses constantly, shoots threes and thrives on unselfish play
“It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball in my 10-12 years playing,” Ciccaglione said.
Roether is the finisher for this group and the top long-range bomber in a program full of them. The 5-foot-10-inch shooting guard is averaging 26 points per game and became the school’s all time leading scorer in January, as well as the first Liberty player to pass the 1,000-point barrier.
However, he is quick to credit Ciccaglione’s defense and passing and Addy’s screens, rebounds and versatility for his big numbers.
“Dom’s always been my point guard. He always knows where to find me and where I like to shoot,” Roether said. “The numbers that I put up are cool but without my team none of this would have been possible. Without Dom finding me in my spots and Collin screening everyone else, the 1,000 points wouldn’t be possible.”
Ciccaglione has a shot at the Lions’ career and season assist records. He chips in 12 points a game but is more of a conductor on both ends as the 5-foot-7-inch point guard hounds opposing ball handlers into turnovers and distributes the ball with aplomb.
“I don’t look to score. I’ll shoot when I’m open. But I pride myself in getting my teammates open and driving and creating for them,” Ciccaglione said
To some extent, the numbers are a product of the program’s full tilt style. But Ciccaglione and Roether were used to playing fast from club basketball.
Roether saw some time as a sophomore while Ciccaglione shuttled between JV and varsity. Both guards blossomed, as did the Lions’ new approach, in the 2015-16 season.
At first, Coach Mark Wood shuttled 13 players in and out in waves, almost like a shift change in hockey. As players got used to the pace their court time increased.
This year no one is out there more than the senior guards.
“We started with one minute (before subbing) because we wanted them to understand the pace. Then we extended that significantly. These guys probably play about 25 minutes in a 32-minute game,” Coach Wood said. “I went to both of them before implementing it to get their take on it. I thought it would suit them and our team to be different. When we had our Division I schedule (last year) and were playing at Corona and at Mountain View, I knew we couldn’t play possession basketball. There was no chance.”
In that overloaded elite 27-team division last year, the Lions finished 10-16 but pushed several of Arizona’s best teams. Back in 5A (previously Division II) the road looked easier but the team started 3-6 and sputtered trying to return to that pace.
Addy, Ciccaglione and Roether helped get the team back on track.
“We say all the time that we’re a player’s program and they have ownership of it. As coaches, we try to manage the culture and we allow them to go and take the team. We are going to empower the players continuously,” Coach Wood said. “I think the three seniors, who have been together for a long time, emerged with a sense of urgency. They’re finding it again after (Jan. 31) when our 13-game win streak was snapped. I think we got complacent.”
In a way, the coach said, the 96-85 loss to Phoenix Sierra Linda could be a benefit and refocus his team on each upcoming game. Coach Wood said that’s the focus, more than holding off Centennial for the region title or going into the playoffs.
This group is battle tested, and Coach Wood said, and its more on how Liberty plays up to its potential from here on out. That is what the guards say they are focusing on, worrying about big picture things like playoffs and where they might play in college only when that is the next thing in line.
“We just need to take it a game at a time,” Roether said. “I feel we are capable of playing with anyone.”
The Lions rebounded Friday with a 70-59 victory over a playoff-bound Gilbert Mesquite team. Tonight, the host Centennial and the winner will claim the Northwest Region title