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Casa Grande Union’s Anthony Flores drives past Rio Rico’s Mario Alvarado during the first half of the Hawks’ 69-50 win over the Cougars on Dec. 13, 2019, at CG Union High School.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was written before the AIA executive board voted Friday to cancel the winter sports season.

CASA GRANDE — If anyone knows the boys on the Casa Grande basketball team well, it’s Chad Howell. After all, he coached most of them in middle school.

A basketball coach and teacher at Villago Middle School, Howell is now in charge of taking over the boys team at Casa Grande Union.

“From the junior group down, I coached pretty much all of them,” said Howell, who is also an assistant coach on the CG Union football team.

After an 8-18 record last season under Robert Peterson, the Cougars are going in a new direction with Howell, who carries an official title of interim head coach.

Howell was a late addition to the team, as he was offered the position by athletic director Randy Robbins in mid-October. He coached at Villago for the last five years.

“I just want kids to commit to the process and compete every day,” Howell said, adding he wants to “change the culture” of a program that hasn’t posted a winning season since the 2015-16 campaign.

More than just results on the court, Howell wants his players to focus on their character, effort and discipline.

Howell played high school basketball at Phoenix St. Mary’s under decorated coach David Lopez, who won 5A state championships with the Knights in 2001 and 2009.

A two-sport athlete in high school, Howell, a 1999 graduate, was also a football star at defensive end. He went on to play football at Arizona State.

The Cougars return five varsity players from last year’s team, including juniors Anthony Flores, Kevin White and DJ Walker, and senior brothers Adam Blunt and Aaron Blunt.

There isn’t much size on the team, as Howell said the tallest player is probably 6-2 or 6-3. He’s planning on tough defense and an up-tempo pace to be Casa Grande’s calling cards.

Watching about 70% of Cougars games last year, Howell said he saw a group that needed to “build some more basketball IQ,” play with better spacing and cutting on offense and playing better, smarter defense.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association has mandated that each team have 14 days of practice before the season begins Jan. 18. Howell said his team just completed its 14th day of practice Wednesday.

Several players are showing up early to practice, and Howell said the team is eager to begin the regular season.

Casa Grande will be without the scoring punch of Mitchell Carlos, a senior on last year’s team who averaged 20.5 points per game. Howell expects that scoring load to be replaced in the collective, not by an individual.

Flores is the leading scorer among returning players, as he averaged 9.5 points last season. The rest of the juniors, including White, Walker and Dee Azcueta will help provide offense, as well as senior Shun (pronounced Shawn) Hatton and Damon Newton.

Newton’s family just moved from Pittsburgh, where he played point guard for Brashear High School last season. Howell said Newton possesses good skills and intelligence and is already showing leadership.

Azcueta is another football player for Casa Grande now transitioning to the hardcourt. He played mostly on the JV basketball team a year ago. Howell said Azcueta is a defensive specialist who can run the floor in transition.

Relationships are always important between players and coaches. Fortunately for Howell, even though he is the new coach of the basketball team, he has plenty of familiarity with most guys on the roster. He said it’s allowed him to have a good rapport with players right away.

“Having a past established relationship … they already know my style of coaching and how I approach the game,” he said.

Playing during the COVID-19 pandemic is a constant challenge and concern. Over the past couple of months, several players on the team have been forced to quarantine at home for 14 days before returning to play.

The first game of the season, scheduled for Jan. 19 at Flowing Wells, has already been canceled. Howell said the rest of the 16-game schedule should move forward as planned, although a couple games could be moved to a later date.

Howell wants CG Union basketball to grow and for people to become more involved with the program.

“We’re excited to connect with the community,” he said.

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Brian Wright is the sports editor at PinalCentral. He can be reached at bwright@pinalcentral.com.