They're the defending state champs. The play under the tutelage of
one of the best coaches in Arizona. They are two of the smartest and
best-spoken student athletes I have come across.
And they are getting virtually no respect.
Stas Chomokos and Artie Donzella will be the starting backcourt in Gilbert this year. They will be the team's leaders, they will likely be the first two scoring options, and now that Ty Turbenson is out with a torn MCL, they will shoulder even more pressure for the defending champs.
I had an opportunity to sit down with these two seniors and talk about the upcoming season.
We started with Ty. "Ty is our biggest body, he's a great rebounder, a great defender, that's where we'll miss him the most." Stas said. But they have a plan, "Stas and I will have to hit the boards harder, so will the other guards, and Michael Nielson will definitely have to step up, but offensively Ty wasn't a focus. We'll still be able to put up points, and we'll still be able to run Coach Bennett's system."
Every year you look at Gilbert and on paper, they don't have the talent, they don't have the size, and yet they continue to win. Talking to Stas and Artie it becomes obvious Coach Bennett is doing his job. I asked them what it was about Coach Bennett that makes everybody buy into the system. There was a pause as the two looked at each other; Stas took the question, "We know it works. He's been successful for so long you can't help but buy in. He doesn't play favorites, and he doesn't let up. When you play for Coach Bennett you know if you do your job things are going to work."
The knock on Gilbert this year is that all five starters from last year's squad have graduated. Both Stas and Artie started smiling when I asked what they had learned from last year's team. "It was a great experience, we both got minutes, but the pressure really wasn't on us." Artie said, "The biggest influence had to be Tommy (Hambicki). He just left everything on the floor every game. You saw how much heart he played with and you had to give as much as he did."
Stas went further, "Tommy really helped me because of how unselfish he was on the floor. And when you watched him, the way he put the other guys on the court in positions to be successful, I learned a lot from him. Coach Bennett has made Tommy one of this year's coaches, so he's going to be on the bench with us this year, and I know he'll be right there, giving me suggestions and pointing things out. It's a great situation for us because you get one of those five starters back to help us out all season."
Both guys agreed that being ‘underrated' at the beginning of the season doesn't bother them, but denied that it was motivation. "That's not how Coach Bennett works, he doesn't care what we're ranked, or who gives us respect and who doesn't," Stas said, "He gets us prepared for the next game, we go out and play, and then he gets us ready for the game after that."
As usual, Artie was on the same page, "It doesn't matter, we were barely in the top 10 last year, and we won the title. The motivation is to improve. There's no negativity in Coach Bennett's locker room. We don't focus on what we are not, we focus on what we are going to do."
Balance is a word the two used repeatedly. Bennett's system certainly emphasizes it, but Stas and Artie know that their roles will be expanded. "This year when Artie has a lane, he's going to take it to the hoop," Stas said, "and if the shot is there then I'm going to shoot it. We're definitely going to be the focus." But don't expect 30 shots a game from either player. Artie explained, "Its all about balance. We have a team of guys who can all score. I might get 20 one game, Stas might get 20 the next, Gavin Tucker might go after that, and there might be two or three other guys who get hot for a stretch and put up big numbers, we go to who's hot, and who's open. That's the system."
So who takes the last second shot to win the game? Again the pause and again big smiles. Artie answered first, "Stas." Stas shook his head, smiled again, and said, "Depends on the situation."
I wasn't going to let him get away with that, like any good reporter I pressed him for an answer, "Look, if Artie's hot it's Artie, if they're double teaming and Gavin's open it might be Gavin, if there's a back cut we'll take that."
Word association is fun when the people you're talking to are smart.
Stas and Artie are smart. A few samples.
Coach Bennett: Stas, "The Best" , Artie, "Intelligent"
Tucson: Artie, "They have something to prove."
Stas, "We play Tucson school in 4 of our first 5, you're not getting me into trouble.
Trevor Browne: Stas, "Quick.", Artie, "Fear factor."
Mesa: Artie, "Tough.", Stas, "Physical."
Artie on Stas: "Tough to guard, physical, clutch."
Stas on Artie: "Helluva player, better than advertised, clutch."
These two play well together and it translates into interviews. It's fun to talk to Stas and Artie, because they never seemed to get flustered. They buy into the system, and they play under control, but don't think these two are among the most competitive players in AZ. I was trying to get under Stas' skin, so I told a little fib.
I told Stas that at this year's CrashtheBoards roundtable discussion the panelists ranked the top point guards in the state. And I told Stas he was ranked 11th. "Really? Who?" This I didn't expect. I tried to blow it off. He wouldn't let me. With each name he smiled, or shook his head, and then said, "Next." As I struggled, trying to come up with 10 PG's in the state that ANYONE could imagine were better than Stas, he wouldn't let up. After about the sixth name, "Next," turned into "Stay tuned." I let him know that I was kidding, that in my mind he was in the top 5 in the state, but I'd lost him. Stas and Artie have another something to prove.
They've heard all the rumors, that last year was a fluke that without that team's starting 5 Gilbert doesn't stand a chance. But they don't care. It might just be something inside of them, a desire to succeed. It might come from Coach Bennett, who doesn't allow negative thinking. It might come from the fact that these two are not just teammates, they are friends, and they believe in each other. But Gilbert will not go quietly. They'll be in every game, and they'll win far more than they lose. Stas might have coined Gilbert's motto this year; "Stay tuned."