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Panthers limber up for ‘a different season’

When the rabid fans of the Pecos boys basketball team check out the 2018-19 edition of the Panthers, it will bear little resemblance to the squad that won consecutive championships and dominated play.

Nevertheless, with hoops practice beginning this week and the first games of the season a couple of weeks away, Pecos will do its best to bring home a third banner for the gym.

“We had seven seniors and those guys did all the heavy lifting,” said coach Ira Harge Jr., who is entering his sixth season at the helm.

“They were the leaders in scoring, assists, just about everything but rebounding. They were a stellar group and we’re sad to see them go, but at the same time, we’re trying to get them on to bigger and better things.”

Indeed, two familiar names from Pecos’ recent success have remained in northern New Mexico and will make appearances on the college hardwood. Mario Archuleta is with New Mexico Highlands University and Carlos Cordova is playing with the Northern New Mexico College junior varsity.

As for this year’s team, players like juniors Xavier Padilla and Anthony Armijo, both of whom saw some meaningful minutes throughout the playoffs last season, are emerging as the team’s go-to players, while seniors Omar Dominguez and Issac Gonzales grabbed hold of the leadership mantle.

“Xavier is killer from the top of the key,” Harge said. “Both he and Anthony played a lot in both championship games. And that’s important. Omar and Issac didn’t play as much, but they were there.

“They understand that it’s a different season. When you go from regular season to a state tournament, especially with the magnitude that we have here in New Mexico, those guys that got in, they got to see how exciting it is with the bigger stage and brighter lights. The basket seems much farther away.”

In Padilla, the Panthers have a strong player who was the team’s third-leading scorer at 10.7 points a game and also the leading rebounder at 5.4 a game. He also averaged nearly an assist per game and 1.1 steals a game. And at 6 feet, he’s one of the taller Panthers.

But with the progression of 6-3 junior Ishmael Villegas, Harge has something of a rarity when it comes to Pecos basketball, namely a tallish, athletic player who can hold down the post.

That means that, for a change, the Panthers can work a post-and-kick game on occasion just to take a bit of the pressure off the run-and-gun and the outside-centric play.

“For the most part, we’re not very tall,” Harge said. “We’re small and fast, so we’ll continue to play up the up-tempo style of basketball. Even our bigs can play that style.”

Another positive about this group is they’ve grown up together and have already shared basketball courts for many years.

“Fortunately, this group has done well at the lower levels,” he said. “They have played together since elementary school. That helps. The group is extremely unselfish, not that the other teams haven’t been, but this group is particularly so.”