With the high school football season nearly over, northern sports fans can breathe a sigh of relief and turn their attention to their favorite time of the year and the pastime that brings them out in droves: prep hoops.
High school basketball in northern New Mexico is not a rim-rocking sensation. It is more of a frenetic, up-and-down game focused on the fundamentals of dribble, pass, move, shoot.
Of the five classifications, two of the championships last year went to local teams, with Robertson earning the 3A title over Santa Fe Indian School and Pecos winning in 2A, the first state titles for each program.
This week, Journal North is looking at a few girls teams across the basketball landscape, with the boys to follow next week. So get ready to tip it off because opening day is swiftly approaching.
Youth will definitely be served at Santa Fe, where coach Nate Morris is without a senior class. The five he expected to be in place for this season all decided not to play.
While that leaves a leadership void, it also represents an opportunity for younger players to quickly step into larger roles, which should pay dividends down the road.
“Looking at what we have on paper, we’re not really post heavy, which is good,” Morris said. “New Mexico is a guard state on both boys and girls sides. We have some depth on the guards. They’re athletic and have some speed. I’m pretty positive about that. We’re not experienced, but we have some guards that can play the game.”
But expect the Demonettes to take their lumps early as they try to mesh into a cohesive unit.
“It’s going to take a few games, especially for the freshmen, to get used to the speed of the varsity game and physicality of it,” Morris said.
The top returner is starter Lexi Espinosa (5 foot, 8 inches, So., F) and she will be expected to carry a heavy load, particularly since the graduating seniors from a year ago together averaged close to 30 points a game.
“Everybody is going to have to contribute,” he said. “We don’t have that one player that we can go to in crunch time.”
Santa Fe will be looking for contributions from Kabreya Garcia Romero (5-2, So., PG) and Heaven Martinez (5-5, Jr., G) as they move from role players off the bench into starting positions.
The Demonettes won 11 games last season and went 5-5 in District 5-5A, so the goal this time around is to beat those totals.
“We can’t take a step back,” Morris said. “We have to keep moving it forward as far as the win count.”
That means entering district play above .500
“If we hope to make state, and that’s the goal every year is to make state, we need to go into district with at least a 7-6 record.”
Pojoaque Valley entered the state tournament last season as the No. 4 seed, one of three District 2-4A teams in the field.
But after the Elkettes won two tough, close victories with rival Española Valley in district play, the 13-seeded Sundevils pulled the shocking upset in the opening round of the tournament. That sent the Elkettes packing, while Española was able to advance all the way to the semifinals before getting knocked out.
“It wasn’t that disappointing,” Pojoaque coach Seledon Martinez said. “Española Valley was a good team. We never should have met in the first round of state.”
Five seniors are gone from that squad, but the returners learned good lessons.
“We have to come out to play basketball every night regardless of who we play,” he said. “When you reach the end of the season, you have to be ready to play your best because they are the only games that are left.”
The good news for the Elkettes is that three starters return, including one of the best front court players in the state in Ashten Martinez (5-11, Sr., F), Miquela Martinez (5-8, Jr., W) and Alicia Sanchez (5-6, Sr. G).
Throw in Tonni Aquino (6-0, So., P), who saw significant minutes off the bench last season and will pair with Ashten Martinez to be a dominating duo underneath, and Pojoaque should be headed for another strong season.
“The older girls are ready to go,” coach Martinez said. “We have to mix in with the new bunch and see how the chemistry unfolds.”
The Elkettes won’t face an easy road as not only is the district improved, but also the entire classification is extremely tough this season.
“Is there any way you can move us to 3A,” the coach said with a chuckle. “Los Alamos is going to be good. Española is going to be good. Moriarty will be better and that’s just in our district. Gallup Central just reloads every year and so does Kirtland Central. St. Pius has a new coach and they’re ready to move. Hope is always tough and they have a new coach. Highland has a monster in the middle (Cailee Crawford). Statewide, 4A is tough. There are 10-12 teams that can win it.”
From start to finish last season, Robertson was on a mission to march out of the Pit with the blue trophy, and powered by Journal North Female Athlete of the Year Alianza Darley, the Cardinals did just that.
But Darley is playing volleyball at UTEP now and four other important seniors graduated, leaving Robertson with some significant high-tops to fill.
What’s more, many of the Cardinals players are coming off a volleyball championship run, so their basketball skills are a touch rusty, said coach José “Majik” Medina.
“We just got them,” he said. “We’re trying to get them going in basketball shape and get the rust out. It’s going to take us a little bit.”
But there still remains talent aplenty, along with significant size on the team that should put the Cardinals head and shoulders above most teams.
“We have to fill some spots, but I think we have some good, young talent in the girls who are returning,” Medina said. “And the more we can get them on the court, the better they will be.”
Returning All-Stater Tessa Ortiz (5-9, Sr., G) and Gabriela Trujillo (5-9, Sr., G) will form one of the tallest backcourts in the classification. Throw in Jayden Jenkins (5-10, So., F) and Pasepa Tuineau (5-11, So., F) and the Cardinals are loaded with size.
While Ortiz averaged a stat-stuffing 10 points, five assists, five rebounds, three steals and two rebounds per game, the rest of the returning core also saw significant minutes as Jenkins put up seven points, seven boards and three thefts, Tuineau had six points and five rebounds, and Trujillo had five points, three assists and four rebounds.
They all were tested in the state tournament, and also have championship experience from volleyball, so they’ll be ready for coming storm, Medina said.
“We have a target on our back and people will be coming after us,” he said. “Right now, we’re using it as motivation to work harder at practice and get better every time out. We have to bring our A game.”
That championship pedigree, however, cannot be underestimated moving forward.
“That experience is invaluable,” Medina said. “To be there and go through it, and deal with the pressure and stresses, and come to together and win, you can only do that one way, by being there and playing in that game. It’s a culture. And we’re trying to build that culture. We want to build on that and carry that momentum and culture to our program. We can pick it up and carry that, and continue to be successful, as well.”
Relentless would be the best way to describe the Pecos drive to join the championship ranks.
But now, six seniors from that squad are gone, as is veteran coach Ron Drake, who left to take a position at the Academy of Technology and the Classics.
That leaves new coach Bryan Gonzales – who moves over from the boys program and is in charge of leading the girls toward a repeat.
“We have a good core of sophomores and we have some freshmen, so we’re not too top heavy and we’re not too young,” he said. “We have a good mixture of older girls and new girls.”
Starter Trinity Herrera (5-6, JR., F) is back, along with significant reserves Lexi Gonzales (5-3, Jr., G), Desiree Sena (5-8, Sr., G) and Sativa Herrera (5-8, Sr., G).
“We’re not looking at the state tournament,” coach Gonzales said. “Our most important game is Dec. 3 against Mora. We just want to stay focused on the task at hand. If we start overlooking teams, what we want to achieve at the end of the season won’t be there because we didn’t take care of business.”
Many of the players have already competed in two state championship events this school year, helping the volleyball team reach the quarterfinals and the cross-country team to finish second.
“What it’s doing for them is it’s making them stronger as players and as leaders on the team,” Gonzales said. “They were on the team last year and a lot of them were also state champions in cross-country last year. It’s given them a lot of experience in that type of arena, district games, state playoffs. They have a very strong character and a very good attitude about their work ethic.”