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Vet Mustangs are going to be tough to beat in 5A

West Mesa’s Maiah Rivas, right, is a key player for the solid Mustangs basketball team. ROBERTO E. ROSALES/JOURNAL

Will this be a truly magical season for the West Mesa High School girls basketball program?

Mustangs coach Manny Otero isn’t ready to even whisper about such heady notions.

“If we start looking at the blue trophy,” he said, “we won’t get there.”

West Mesa, coming off its best season in school history (24-3), returns all five starters and – sparked by guards Maiah Rivas and Espi Varoz – is pegged as one of the several teams fully capable of winning the Class 5A state title in March.

“I just think our main focus is keeping them in the process,” said Otero. “And not looking too far ahead.”

The Mustangs will face tests throughout. They play defending 5A state champion Los Lunas on Thursday, are in a tough Las Cruces tournament just after Christmas, and face a harsh road trip to Carlsbad and defending 6A state champ Hobbs at the end of next week.

West Mesa (which opens today against Rio Grande) had a disappointing quarterfinal exit last March against Rio Rancho, but this is unquestionably New Mexico’s best and most dangerous shooting team, in any classification.

“Everyone gets caught up with our scoring ability and the way we move the ball, but we have to get better at defense and focus on rebounding,” Otero said.

West Mesa also has been moved into a more competitive district this season, joining La Cueva, Piedra Vista and Eldorado, all of which should be quite good.

“I think we can be one of the top five teams in the state,” Bears coach Robert Perea said. With a fully healthy Kaya Ingram (an outstanding junior guard who is expected to go Division I) in the fold, La Cueva surely will be a factor in the postseason.

La Cueva is one of two city teams, along with Volcano Vista, that is going to feature a heavy dose of gifted freshmen – much like Otero’s Mustangs did several years ago. (Coincidentally, La Cueva and Volcano Vista meet to open the season at 5:30 p.m. today on the West Side.)

“Comparable to the West Mesa group,” Perea said of his young-uns. As the Wolf Pack, Perea said they were virtually untouchable as middle-schoolers.

Volcano Vista coach Lisa Villareal had the giggles as she talked about her freshmen, who are expected to step in immediately.

“An exciting bunch of guards to watch,” she said. “They’ve been playing for a very long time together, and they just bring an excitement, an energy, to the floor.”

District 1-5A adds a team with some promise in Atrisco Heritage, but this league graduated its top players from the two best squads last season in that league, Cibola and Rio Rancho.

The Cougars were beaten in overtime by Hobbs in the 6A state final in March. Longtime coach Lori Mabrey has three starters returning – but Cibola is far from healthy as the season begins today and Tuesday for most city schools.

“Our district is maybe not the kingpin that I think it’s been for several years running,” Mabrey said. “I don’t know if there’s a clear-cut favorite.”

Rio Rancho was in the state semis last March, and Cleveland coach Susan Kubala has a potential sleeper team; the Storm nearly upset Cibola, a 1 seed, in last season’s playoffs, and most of the Cleveland roster is back.

“A lot of the pieces are coming together,” Kubala said. “We have a large number of kids who can play multiple positions, so we are more flexible in what we can do. (And) our 9-19 season (last season)? In other districts, it would have been 19-9, honestly.”

Things are a little clearer in District 5-5A, where Sandia – which had to rely heavily on freshmen last season – is getting its two premier players back after Viane Cumber and Sapirah Broussard missed all of 2017-18 with injuries.

“We were offensively challenged last year,” Matadors coach Lee Kettig said. “Now we feel we can play our style. We really do feel we have two of the best players in the state.”

Class 4A

District 6 will surely be one to watch closely, as Highland moves down a class and Hope Christian moves up a class. These are two of 4A’s best teams. A close summer game against southern California powerhouse Mater Dei has Hornets coach Lonnie Neal thinking big.

“If we play to that type of level here in the state, we’ll be really hard to beat,” he said. “I’ll put my top five against anybody in the state.” Among that group is sophomore point guard Cailee Crawford, who is coming off a sensational season.

Hope coach Gary Ellis is equally enthused.

“We’re just excited about a chance to see where we’re at,” he said. He also has a thrilling sophomore in 5-10 forward Hayley Valencia.

Defending 5A state champ Los Lunas returns only one starter, but very much like La Cueva and Volcano Vista, the Tigers have some very promising underclassmen who should burst onto the stage in a big way this season. In Los Lunas’ case, it is a top-flight group of sophomores.

“They didn’t get a lot of varsity experience (last season), but they’re used to winning,” Tigers coach Marty Zeller said. “We are gonna be tested, but we’ll be one of the top four teams in this class.”

OTHER CLASSES: In District 5-3A, Cottonwood Classical Prep coach Sam Gavaldon believes the Coyotes are ready to qualify for the state tournament with a deeper, more experienced team. … Evangel Christian is back at the varsity level; it didn’t have a team last season. … Sandia Prep has a new coach in Jerome Romero, who has experience at private schools, having had earlier stints in his career at St. Michael’s and Hope Christian.