As the Desert Mountain High School girls basketball team worked to overcome a late-game deficit against Pinnacle High School, Head Coach Alicia Sanchez watched calmly from the sideline.
She occasionally would shout directions to her team but for the most part, she would watch stoically.
With the clock racing to zero, Desert Mountain trailed by two points. Desert Mountain forward Alana Kelley made a 3-point shot with about five seconds left and the Wolves’ sideline erupted in cheers.
Despite the excitement and celebration around her, Coach Sanchez remained calm, directed her team but still had time to congratulate Kelley on what would be the game-winning shot.
“I don’t get too emotional or crazy,” Coach Sanchez said in a Jan. 23 interview. “I stay pretty calm for the most part. Inside? Yes I was burning up, I was going crazy.”
That win helped put Desert Mountain in better position for the looming postseason as Pinnacle was a top team in the region. Wins like this have become more the norm at Desert Mountain since Coach Sanchez arrived almost two years ago.
So far this season, she has led Desert Mountain to an 18–5 overall record and 6–0 in 6A’s Desert Valley Region, as of Wednesday, Jan. 24. There’s still a few games left until the playoffs but Coach Sanchez said she has set her goals high for this team.
She has gotten to this point by keeping calm and relying on her past experiences to bolster the team.
Building a resume
As a sophomore at Central Arizona College in 2009, she helped lead the team to a national championship. Later in her career, she went to Wichita State and was part of a team that twice went to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
From these experiences, Coach Sanchez said she learned lessons that have helped her in her coaching career, especially in remaining calm and collect in tight situations.
Coach Sanchez’ resume has also led the players to buy into what she is trying to teach them.
“It’s a lot different from other coaches who didn’t play at the collegiate level or who didn’t have that kind of experience,” Kelley said in a Jan. 23 interview. “It’s easier to trust her and what she’s saying because she’s been there before.”
Coach Sanchez said she did aspire to play basketball overseas but she gave birth to her son while she was playing at Wichita State. She said this caused a change of plans.
“I realized there were bigger things in store for me than that,” she said. “I really wanted to just share what I learned with these guys.”
Her first stop as a head coach of Liberty High School girls basketball in her hometown of Peoria. There, she coached Liberty to 68–19 record over three years and three playoff appearances.
The Desert Mountain culture
In her first year at Desert Mountain, Coach Sanchez led the team to a 19–10 season and a playoff appearance.
Since arriving, she said she has tried to establish a hard-working culture where leaders can thrive.
This season, she has turned to seniors Rayah Craig and Kelley to be leaders for the team.
Kelley said Coach Sanchez has tried to help these seniors understand the importance of leading by example and by communicating with the team.
Coach Sanchez said leaders are important because if Desert Mountain has success in the postseason, it’s going to be because of the team’s leaders and not her as a coach.
“I think I’ve done a pretty good job of building leaders and putting them in the position so they can lead their team to bigger and better things,” Coach Sanchez said.
But it’s not just about building a good team with solid leaders. Coach Sanchez said she wants to craft a relationship with her players that shows them she’s not just there to win basketball games.
She said she tries to do that by making sure her players know she is there for them for whatever they need, even if it doesn’t relate to basketball.
In turn, Craig said Coach Sanchez’ efforts are recognized and the team does see her as someone they trust.
“She just has that presence to where you know you can go to her with anything on or off the court,” Craig said in a Jan. 23 interview.
That trust from her players is strong enough that many on the team are on a first-name basis with Coach Sanchez, Craig said.
Craig said she believes the team is comfortable calling Coach Sanchez by her first name because of the way she approaches practice.
At practice, Craig said, Coach Sanchez is down to earth and will sometimes dress to play basketball with her team.
“She can definitely keep up so it puts us on a teammate level along with her being our coach,” Craig said.
With that level of comfort, Coach Sanchez said she likes to joke and tease her players a lot and they, in turn, joke and tease her back.
Coach Sanchez said she believes her players find her hilarious but Craig says otherwise.
“On a side note, we don’t think she’s that funny,” Craig said with a smile. “We just laugh at her jokes to make her feel good about herself.”
More than the game
Joking aside, Coach Sanchez has helped build the Desert Mountain program into a giant in 6A this year. That’s a long way from the team’s three straight losing seasons from 2012-15.
Craig, who has been on varsity since her sophomore year, said Coach Sanchez does a good job at finding what combinations of players do well together, something she believed her previous coach didn’t do.
Coach Sanchez said this and many other aspects of her coaching stem from her love for the game of basketball.
It’s a game, she said, that’s been with her since she was 5-years-old and a huge part of her life. From that passion comes Coach Sanchez’ goal of what she wants to accomplish on the court.
“If I can put some of my passion and give it to them, I’ve done my job as a coach,” she said.
But it doesn’t stop there. Coach Sanchez said she loves to see players grow as leaders.
“That’s one thing I really look forward to,” she said. “It’s not necessarily the wins and losses, it’s who I can build as individuals, how they respond to me and sending them out into the real world.”
Following the win against Pinnacle, the Desert Mountain players loaded onto the bus to head back to their school.
Coach Sanchez came walking out and saw a few players sticking their heads out the window, asking her questions.
After answering their questions, she told them “I love you.”
This has become a normal practice, Coach Sanchez said, one that players sometimes reciprocate. The times they don’t, she said, is usually because they think it’s silly.
Regardless, Coach Sanchez said she does it with a specific purpose in mind.
“Just to know that they’re loved and it’s not only about basketball,” she said. “That I’m here for them anytime off the court. Whatever they need, I’m here for them and I love them.”