Shelby School basketball coach Steve Rensch is at it again.
Four years ago, Rensch gathered a group of seven boys and put together a youth hoop team that later became one of the state's best middle school/junior high squads.
Last fall, those same players played pivotal roles in helping the Payson High School freshmen post an undefeated season.
One of the former Shelby players, Dallas Rensch -- the coach's son --was good enough to make the junior varsity squad as a freshman.
With his former players now in high school, Rensch has turned his attention toward molding a crew of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders into another promising hardwood team.
The group was green and untested when the season started last fall. "Because they had not played organized ball, I told them I did not care about winning this year, we would make this a season for learning the game," Rensch said.
But the tenacity of the team was underestimated by their coach.
"They surprised me with their diligence and their love of the game," Rensch says.
The result of the campaign was a 21-5 record, an unblemished slate in the Town of Payson Parks and Recreation youth league and a third-place finish last weekend at the City of Phoenix recreation championships.
But why would the coach ship a fledgling team from tiny Tonto Village to metropolitan Phoenix to challenge schools with student bodies that number in the thousands?
He reasons, "After beating virtually everyone they played in northern Arizona, I decided to send them to the Valley -- frankly I was hoping and expecting they would get blasted so they would see the next step they have to get to."
But as they had done all season, the youngsters surprised Rensch with their abilities.
In the opening rounds of the tournament, Shelby whipped Chaparral and Acacia by more than 20 points, Rensch said.
After two more wins, Shelby was top-seeded into the championship rounds and awarded a bye.
In the semifinals, Shelby finally met its match in the form of the Jam -- a team Rensch describes as "a Valley all-star team."
A 24-17 loss wrapped up Shelby's tournament stay. After returning home to Tonto Village, the team members immediately returned to the court to begin preparations for the Town of Payson Youth Invitational scheduled to be played April 1.
"They were back on the court practicing only a couple of hours after being eliminated from the Phoenix tournament, so I know this group is going to be a good one," Rensch said.
The key to the team's success during the past campaign was not their offensive skills but their defensive abilities.
"They picked up our trapping aggressive style very quickly -- we held our opponents under 20 (ppg) which is why we're so competitive even against older kids," Rensch said.
On the team are two sixth-grade boys, a sixth-grade girl, four fifth-grade boys and a fourth-grade boy.
The sixth-grade girl, Trina Rensch, was forced into the starting point guard position when her brother, Fitch, was sidelined with a hip injury.
"Trina took his place and immediately established herself as an excellent passer and defender," Rensch said.
The coach also lauded the contributions of Jeff Mulcahey, Larry Jones, Zack Brooks, Morgan Cassuto and Oliver Lewinson, who he said all improved immensely over the course of the season.