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Rare Edition of Mustangs

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pat vasquez-cunningham/journal West Mesa’s Azarius Ortiz lands on top of La Cueva’s Kory Alford after grabbing a loose ball in the first half of Friday’s game. West Mesa’s players aim to make believers of themselves, others

 

If the rest of New Mexico isn’t sure what to make of the West Mesa High School boys basketball team, they need not fret. They’re not alone.

Even the Mustangs, the sixth-ranked team in Class 5A, are still trying to get a handle on their newfound success.

“I think it’s got a lot to do with what’s happened in the past,” said West Mesa coach Shonn Schroer. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

West Mesa is perhaps the most curious story in 5A boys basketball this season.

The record (11-4 after Friday night’s 52-45 home loss to La Cueva) is impressive, and includes wins over the defending state champion Bears and Sandia Prep. Just last week, West Mesa was ranked No. 5, the highest rating the school has achieved since a fifth classification was added 11 years ago.

But while people are taking notice, the Mustangs don’t get the sense that they’re being taken seriously.

“I really don’t know how to prove them wrong,” senior guard Azarius Ortiz said. “I don’t think we’ll get respect this season no matter what we do.”

It’s a great time to analyze the Mustangs, who open District 5-5A play next week with games against Rio Grande and surging Highland.

What we know is this:

In Schroer’s eight seasons with West Mesa, he’s not had a roster stocked with this much talent or depth. The Mustangs have not won more than 12 games in any of those seasons. And it’s been 13 years (1997-98 season) since the Mustangs A) won a district championship; or B) qualified for the state tournament.

“This is a team that understands what it’s up against,” Schroer said.

By comparison, every one of the city’s other public high schools, except first-year Atrisco Heritage Academy, has been to the playoffs within the last two years. And if you expand that search, every 5A, 4A and 3A program within 40 miles of Albuquerque – except for second-year Cleveland, and Moriarty – has been to state within the last three years.

So what’s changed at West Mesa?

“I just think we have a team, finally,” said assistant coach Tony LaCour, a former Mustang who played on the school’s last truly great team, the 1993-94 squad that lost in the state finals to La Cueva. “I don’t think there’s been that before, not for a while.”

The players will tell you that the various cliques that hindered progress in previous season exist no more. Others point to the addition of guard Keon Harris, a Highland transfer who grew up in West Mesa’s neighborhood and who played extensively at the club level with this current crop of Mustangs. Harris admits the West Mesa brand hasn’t struck fear in anyone.

“When I was at Highland, when we heard (we were playing) West Mesa, we thought we were gonna smash them,” Harris said. “We didn’t look at it as a hard game.”

Here is where the contrast becomes clear. Yes, West Mesa is the highest-ranked team in in its district, but the Mustangs discard that.

“People I talk to are shocked that we’re still doing as well as we are,” said LaCour. “Unless we win state, that’s the only way we’ll get respect from anybody. People probably thought we’d be 3-11 instead of (11-4).”

But pressed to identify what element has been added that’s led to a hot first half, LaCour is at a loss.

“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I can’t answer that one.”

Neither can Schroer, not concretely at any rate. The Mustangs, Schroer said, are a blue-collar team with great chemistry. Beyond that, he doesn’t want to get caught up in hype, not with half a season still to go.

“As soon as you think you’ve made it, that’s when you lose it,” said Schroer. “I hope this team doesn’t have a problem with being satisfied or being complacent. You can’t ask for respect. You have to earn respect.”

That will not be a problem, he said.

“The respect thing has really hit home with this group,” said Schroer. “They’re playing with a chip on their shoulder. They don’t back down, and they’re not afraid to take shots. I can’t put my finger (on what’s different), except to say that they have that expectation to play well. To me, how we finish is a lot more important than how we’re playing right now.”

 

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