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Boys prep basketball: Romero leads turnaround at Manzano

Seven and a half times more.

That is how much the Manzano High School boys basketball team improved from the 2016-17 season, with two victories, to 2017-18, when the Monarchs won 15 games.

And this stunning reversal was rewarded with a No. 9 seed for the Class 6A state tournament.

“When I met the boys over the summer,” new head coach Dominick Romero said, “I saw there was talent and ability, for sure. But I knew it would be a challenge making the state tournament.”

As it turns out, less of a challenge than he may have first thought. Manzano (15-10) is at No. 8 West Mesa at 5 p.m. Saturday in the first round, with the winner set to move on to Dreamstyle Arena – the Pit next week. (Click here for brackets in each boys classification.)

“Last season (a 6A-worst 2-23) was hard for us,” said Manzano senior forward Erick Campillo-Terrazas. “But during the summer … we were like … I don’t know what happened, but we just started winning.”

It was, he said, a mystery to the Monarchs’ small senior group, which includes both Campillo-Terrazas and Manzano’s fantastic and versatile forward, 6-foot-7 Eric Sonnenberg, that the program had been struggling in the first place.

This year validated what they already felt. Not only were these 15 wins a dramatic increase over last year, but it’s more wins that the last three seasons (2, 6 and 6) combined.

Which is where Romero enters the picture.

Romero is a veteran head coach who already had mentored under coaching legends such as Albuquerque Academy’s Mike Brown and La Cueva’s Frank Castillo, so he was well versed on how to win.

He took over the Manzano program last April.

“I think this definitely has a lot to do with coach,” said Sonnenberg. “And once we got the taste of winning, it kind of kept going. … It’s great. I’m just glad it finally happened as a senior.”

The offseason program, Sonnenberg said, was crucial in how Manzano approached this high school season.

Romero said it was nothing complicated. He needed to change their mindset, while also putting in his own system, increasing the tempo.

He, like his players, noticed a difference once Manzano started winning some games in the summer.

“It was a slow process. But confidence,” Romero said, “is contagious.”

Manzano won its first five games this season. The Monarchs hit a slump for a few weeks when Sonnenberg was out of the lineup. But they finished second behind Eldorado in District 2-6A – and that was important, because La Cueva, the team that finished third, is the 10 seed and ends up with a first-round road game on Saturday to Hobbs.

Manzano merely has to go across town, to play a West Mesa team that beat Manzano twice last month – once without Sonnenberg. The second game was Sonnenberg’s first game back, and he fouled out quickly that night.

However the season ends, on Saturday or next week at the Pit, everyone feels a foundation is being laid for Manzano to get back to the heights it last achieved in 2006 when it won a state championship.

Romero likes to quote a Tony Dungy book as part of the inspiration for how he’s tackled this job.

“We try to be uncommon,” he said. “We try to be a little different than other teams.”

THIS AND THAT: All the boys’ first-round games are Saturday. The second week of state for the boys starts on Wednesday, with Class 6A and 5A at the Pit, 4A and 3A at the Santa Ana Star Center, 2A at Rio Rancho and Cleveland high schools, and 1A at Bernalillo High.

• Sadly, Saturday night’s Albuquerque High-Valley matchup is going to be the last meaningful game between these two rivals for at least three years, since Valley drops down in classification next year. “It bothers me,” Vikings coach Joe Coleman said. “The NMAA has a tough job, but the fact that you have to play a district team in the first round, it just doesn’t make it feel like it’s the state tournament.”

The last time AHS visited Valley, Vikes’ senior guard Anthony Chavez won it with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the glass.

• Although Oñate, the 13 seed, beat Volcano Vista 64-63 on Dec. 1 in Las Cruces, the Knights won’t have sophomore guard Ricky Lujan (who was averaging almost 16 points a game) for Saturday’s rematch with the fourth-ranked Hawks. Lujan was injured a couple of weeks ago against Carlsbad and is out for the season.

So the defending state champions in 6A are focused on other things. “We are motivated to play them because of what happened the last time,” said Volcano Vista coach Greg Brown.

• Del Norte’s boys made the state semifinals in 5A last year as a 13 seed before bowing out to Roswell. The Knights, No. 11 this year, are playing at the defending state champion Coyotes in this year’s first round.

• The Las Cruces-Sandia first-rounder previously played out in the championship game of last December’s Joe Armijo Classic at Academy, with the Bulldawgs winning 49-42.

• The only undefeated team remaining in the state is Texico (26-0), the No. 1 seed in Class 3A.

• Santa Fe is in back-to-back playoffs for the first time in nearly three decades.

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