All that’s on the minds of the Southridge boys’ basketball team is something the school’s never accomplished in its relatively short history.

It’s a sizable objective, one that will have to be earned with hard work for the next three or four weeks in the manslayer Metro League. There are two titans standing in their path as well — Sunset and Jesuit, a pair of esteemed programs who have gotten back on course lately, but aren’t unconquerable.

What the Skyhawks are hunting is well within their realm of abilities, especially following their 43-42 upset win over the Crusaders and nearly upending the Apollos on the road.

“Our goal is the Metro League championship,” said senior point guard AJ Monterossi. “We’ve never done that for our school, but we have motivation behind it all. It’s good confidence and motivation for us. That’s all we’re thinking about, cutting down some nets.”

“I feel like the sky’s the limit,” said senior wing Hudson VanAllen. “We’re still figuring out rotations, but I feel like we’re starting to settle down. Everyone’s accepting their minutes. We’re still pushing each other, working hard. That’s leading us to be successful.”

If there’s ever been a year for the Skyhawks to claim their first league championship and clinch that coveted bye in the first round in the playoffs and top seed in the 6A playoffs, it’s 2013-14. Jesuit’s credible as always because of its head coach Gene Potter, dedication to defense and unselfishness. However, the Crusaders don’t have the habitual three or four Division-One studs littering their starting lineup like they have in the past. And, Southridge matches up well with Jesuit’s conventional first five, as evidenced by their come-from-behind win at home to start Metro play.

“It’s really one step at a time,” added sophomore wing Michael Seng. “We’re trying to climb ladders at the end of the season. We just have to play every game and every possession.”

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge senior wing Aly El-Mansy is a versatile performer on the perimeter and the paint.

Fired up

Sunset’s won seven straight and risen to sixth in the 6A coaches’ poll. Yet, Southridge proved to be a thorn in the Apollos’ side when the two teams locked horns two weeks ago. Down 10 going into the fourth, the Skyhawks scraped back into the game with offensive boards and identifiable execution down the stretch to get within three of senior-heavy Sunset. Southridge even had a chance to tie the game in the fourth, trailing by three with 18 seconds, but couldn’t get off a shot and was left with a 53-49 defeat.

“We just have to jump on people,” said Monterossi. “Sometimes we wait until halftime to really get psyched up, but today we just had to come out and get ‘em. We were just fired up.”

The Sunset comeback was even more commendable considering Monterossi exited the game with a rolled right ankle in the fourth quarter, and junior scoring threat Parker Gaddis was on the bench with five fouls. In fact, Southridge’s been competitive in each game it’s played this season, with its biggest loss coming to No. 3 Sheldon, 59-50, in the preseason.

“I’d say our confidence is really high because all of our losses have been close,” said Monterossi. “We know we can battle with anyone.”

At 3-1 in the Metro League with Jesuit and Sunset rematches looming, Southridge knows it’s imperative to take care of the teams it knows are beatable, so those showdowns with the top-two powers take on even more importance. Southridge currently has sole possession of second place in Metro.

“We can’t overlook any team,” said Seng. “We have to play defense the way we play defense, and everything will go alright. We play off our defense, and that really builds us.”

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge senior post Griff Christiansen's confidence has risen seemingly every game with more touches on the block and shooting threes from outside.

Decisive hand

Monterossi shook off the at-the-time worrisome ankle injury and rebounded with a couple of big outings against Westview (25 points) and Aloha (14 points, five assists) on Feb. 5. When the 5-foot-10 captain is healthy and right, there are few Metro guards who can stay in front of him off the dribble. The returning all-league point guard is the engine driving Southridge’s league-title chances because he has such a decisive hand in each play, plus his unselfish nature filters to the rest of his teammates.

He’s a leader who properly plays the pick-and-roll like a pro, setting up Griff Christiansen with threes at the top of the key or getting into the paint where he can dish to Gaddis, VanAllen, Seng or VanAllen for open triples from the outside. Monterossi’s scoring ability and aggressiveness essentially sets the tone offensively. When he’s attacking, the Skyhawks are as threatening as they come in state tourney contenders.

“You just have to pick your spots,” noted Monterossi. “I know when I can attack and score. I know when Griff (Christiansen) has a mismatch. You just have to analyze it and see where we’re going and feed the hot hand. If someone’s knocking down shots, we’ll run a play for them.”

Monterossi’s talents are well-documented, but the teammates around him have stepped up, picking up their respective games and applying them to the team concept laid out by head coach Phil Vesel. Gaddis and Reel can slash-and-score while making plays for their sharpshooters like VanAllen and Seng. Aly El-Mansy and Alex Beekman have been the unsung heroes of sorts for the Skyhawks, doing the little things that don’t show up in the box score but always have a positive impact on the game.

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge sophomore wing Michael Seng has been a valuable contributor off the bench for the Skyhawks with his shooting ability and active defense.

Senior wing Brian Pete worked his way into the starting lineup after a sound preseason and buried a momentum-swinging triple against the Crusaders in the fourth quarter. Point guard Grant Giraldi can come in for Monterossi and run the team with solid aplomb. Christiansen’s confidence is infectious, and the big man can play inside or out depending on Southridge’s opponent.

Vesel’s played a 10-man rotation for most of the year and seen hardly any drop off in production or effort in doing so. Against Aloha, eight players had six or more points, a testament to the well-balanced talent level and strong Southridge bench.

“Our emphasis this whole year has been our depth,” said VanAllen. “Not many teams play 10 players. Everyone on our team can score, and we trust each other. That plays a big role for now and later on down the road.”

“If we get energy off the bench, which we do every game, then it’s like we have 10 starters,” added Monterossi. “Everyone’s coming out contributing, and that just wears a team out.”

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