Casteel basketball aiming big this season

Jan. 9—The grind for this year's Casteel boys' basketball team started in the summer at Section 7.

The mega showcase featured well over 100 high school programs separated into various brackets. They played tournament-style games, with a champion crowned at the end of the three-day event. Casteel went 2-2 facing national competition, but in the process the players and coaching staff realized what they had and could accomplish.

So, the goal was set. It's the same for every other program: play deep into the postseason and compete for a championship. But for Casteel, it almost became an expectation. The Colts know they have the talent to compete with most teams — if not all — in the state.

Now midway through the season, they appear poised to meet that expectation.

"I'm proud of our team because we knew we had the potential to be one of the best teams in the state, and especially 5A," junior guard Amare King said. "It's not unexpected. But we're proud of starting to fulfill what we thought we could be."

Casteel's roster is equipped with long and athletic players this season. Many have returned from last year's team, which struggled throughout the year but still made the postseason.

But the level of chemistry is higher than in year's past. There's also more trust from Head Coach Aaron Windler.

Just after Christmas, the Colts played in the McClintock Holiday Shootout, one of the longest running annual tournaments that often brings together some of the top teams in the state to compete just before the start of the new year and second half of the season. Casteel made it to the championship and beat host McClintock.

In the first two quarters of the game, which was dominated by Casteel thanks to King and senior Aidan Schmidt, Windler played 11 different players. Most programs play up to eight or nine comfortably. But Windler has faith he can go deep into his bench to relieve some of the starting five, which he believes can hang with anyone in the state.

"I honestly feel like we've got 13 guys that we can play at any time," Windler said. "I love our top five, but I know there are some other teams out there that are really talented. We have Desert Mountain on the 9th at this place so that will be a good barometer of where we're at."

King has taken big steps toward becoming a leader both on and off the floor for Casteel. He's grown several inches and has become a lights-out shooter with the ability to use his 6-foot-5 frame to drive to the basket, often drawing contact. He complements the other starters well, including Schmidt, Casteel's leading scorer this season who has similar attributes.

Casteel has mastered the transition game and can play lockdown defense on the other end. When shots don't fall, 6-foot-7 senior Kaelum Brown is there to clean up the boards.

They work well as a cohesive unit. It's something they've focused on since Section 7. Even when starters leave the floor, Casteel doesn't skip a beat. Whether it's the sixth or 11th man on the bench, the Colts have firepower to run away with games — as they've done several times this season.

"We wanted to flip things around this year, and we did," Schmidt said. "It's amazing. But we're not done yet. We still have half a season to go."

Casteel is 14-2 heading into a matchup with Desert Mountain on Tuesday, an Open Division semifinal team from a year ago that returned most starters and added even more talent around sophomores Kaden and Kalek House.

Windler said that will be one of the biggest tests for his team to see where they stack up with an Open Division title contender. Keep it close or win and Casteel would immediately shoot up in the rankings and become legitimate contenders for the top title in the state.

But for now, they Colts are taking things one game at a time.

"We're just being humble," Schmidt said. "Good things will happen if you're humble. Everyone gives their 100%. Everyone is locked in and knows what their positions are."

The Open Division has added a new wrinkle to basketball. Last year, it allowed teams like Highland in 6A and Campo Verde in 5A win the conference championships. Both teams were initially in the Open Division but were put back in the conference bracket after losing in the first two rounds.

Casteel hopes to mimic the success those programs had last season. Except, they prefer to remain in the state's top playoff bracket.

No matter what, though, the Colts' goal is to come away with a trophy. So, while they prefer to have on over the other, they'll fight for the opportunity to hoist a gold ball at the end of the year. They know they're built for it.

"We want to get in the Open. That's our goal," Windler said. "I don't know that I have any dreams of being a top four team in the Open, but I want to be in the top eight. That would be a good goal met for this group."

Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at (480)898-5630 or Follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.