Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Although local boys basketball teams didn’t quite do as well as their counterparts on the girls side when it came to state championships last season, the unexpected and thrilling runs from Santa Fe and Santa Fe Indian School to the Class 5A and 3A title games more than made up for any deficiencies when it came to excitement.
Pecos did carry off a state championship trophy, completing the threepeat, and more may be in store for the Panthers as they will be the team to beat again. Here is a look at some of the top teams in the classifications.
The Demons lost one of the state’s top players, Fedonta “J.B.” White in mid-January to a knee injury, and rather than hang their collective heads and give up on the season, Santa Fe just doggedly kept progressing all the way to the season’s final episode, coming within a 3-pointer of a championship.
With White (6 feet, 7 inches, Jr., F) – who is a verbal commit to the University of New Mexico – back and looking better than ever, the Demons are ready to get after that blue trophy they have not hoisted since 1978.
“We’re excited going in,” coach Zack Cole said. “We have to work on some of the little things that made us really good last year. We have some different guys in different positions, so we have to figure all that out and polish it up a little bit.”
Getting so close has the squad with three starters returning receptive to working that much harder, he said.
“Without a doubt,” Cole said. “Since the game ended last year, they instantly made it a goal to try and get back. We were happy with the run we made, but we weren’t happy with the way it ended.”
Having White, who averaged 17 points and 13 rebounds, is a crucial element for making a long playoff run, as his versatility across the court allows the Demons to employ numerous looks both offensively and defensively.
“When he gets going, it kind of gets everybody else around him going,” Cole said. “His versatility is just what makes him so unique. We can have him on the point on the back end of the press. He can be in the middle of the press. He can be at the top of the zone. He can be in the center of the zone. He gives us so many options to play with.”
Fellow returning starters Cruz Martinez (5-8, Jr., PG) and Carlos Dassaro (6-0, Sr., G) provide significant complementary talent and experience as both can score and defend well. Cody Garcia (5-10, Jr., G) also saw significant minutes off the bench and as an occasional starter who will be counted on to put his scoring punch to good use.
Melding the talent is crucial, however, as 5A is as loaded it’s ever been, Cole said.
“I think 5A is going to have a lot of good teams this year,” he said. “Starting up in the north, Capital is going to be really good. They didn’t lose anybody. Atrisco has those dynamic guards. La Cueva is tall and Volcano Vista will be good. Eldorado will be good, Las Cruces is really big and has some good guards. Clovis will be good and Cleveland returns a lot of players. In 5A, anyone within the top 10 can beat anybody on any given night.”
At most schools, earning a No. 5 seed for the state tournament would be a considered a good season. But after a first-round dismissal, Española Valley went searching for a new coach.
Enter Gabe Martinez, who comes over from nearby Northern New Mexico College.
He will have his work cut out for him as the SunDevils are a young bunch who return just one player who saw significant time last season.
John Garcia (6-4, Sr., F) will provide some size inside and will be the team’s de-facto leader.
“The word that comes to mind is youthful,” Martinez said. “We’re very young. However, we are young with a lot of potential and a lot of talent. For me, I have to get these guys to mature into varsity players quickly.”
Mario Egiono (5-10, Sr., G) was a leader with the JV squad last season and will be expected to continue that role going forward.
Additionally, the team has two sophomores who stand 6-5 and who together with Garcia give Española perhaps more size than it’s ever had.
“That’s not bad at all,” he said. “A lot of times, when you see young kids, people think we’re building for the future. But these guys need to mature now. There is no next year. (We’re) trying to get these guys to understand that age doesn’t determine how well they can perform. I’m excited for them, but we’re in a transition phase. I’m excited for the process with them. At the end of the day, I think it’s going to work out to be a very successful season.”
Although Martinez brings college coaching experience to the court, he said right now he’s working on getting the SunDevils to focus on the fundamentals.
“The stuff that we’re working on daily is trying to perfect all the little details,” Martinez said. “I’m a big advocate of fundamentals. They’re extremely important and once we have those down, we can move on to the more advanced work. But they’re showing hard work and dedication. They’re buying in to what I ask them, they’re being coachable and trying their very best to learn what I’m throwing at them.”
Four of St. Michael’s graduating seniors who led the Horsemen to the top seed entering the state tournament last season were starters.
But coach David Rodriguez can count on returning district co-player of the year Thomas Wood (6-2, Sr., P) to help the Horsemen return to prominence.
What was particularly frustrating for the Horsemen, however, was beating Santa Fe Indian School four times during the regular season, then dropping the semifinal by 13 points to the Braves.
“I would say we had a terrific season,” Rodriguez said. “But it left the kids hungry for more.”
Wood should have plenty of help, as Lucas Coriz (6-3, So., P) and Devin Flores (6-1, So., F) will help out inside, while Berkeley Reynolds (5-11, Sr., G) brings championship experience from St. Mike’s run to the soccer title.
A wildcard will be sharpshooter Ruben Salazar (5-9, Sr., G), a transfer from Española who had to sit out last season, but will step right into the lineup.
Rico Gurule (6-1, Sr. F) and Kennis Romero (5-9, Sr., G) will contribute additional depth to the unit.
And this year’s squad has a different mentality about it, Rodriguez said.
“You get a taste of that and you want more,” he said of postseason success. “Besides that, overall, we have a more competitive mindset. There’s more fight than we’ve had in the past couple of years. We’ve had some great kids, but you have to have that temperament, that game-time temperament throughout. I think we kind of lacked that with some individuals the past couple of years.”
Similarly to the past season, St. Mike’s has a tough opening slate and will see many larger schools in preparation for the challenges of district play and later state competition.
“Last year, we played a good quarter or two against bigger schools, and then we’d fall apart,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t maintain the intensity that you need against good completion. That’s going to toughen us up when we go to Robertson and West Las Vegas because those are tough road trips and then for the state championship because we have every intention of being at the state tournament again.”
Championship hopes run through Pecos. Again.
But it won’t be easy for the contenders out there as the Panthers have simply reloaded for another run at the blue.
“We’re blessed,” said Pecos coach Ira Harge Jr. “It’s been very nice the past few years. I’ll have nine seniors. One didn’t play last year, but he’s playing this year, so we have nine guys leading our charge.”
Taking point on that effort, gym rat Xavier Padilla (6-1, Sr., F) was a dynamo last season, averaging 19 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.5 steals per game.
“He’s a great kid, a great student and a hard worker,” Harge said. “He’s just dedicated. His off-season routine and his work ethic are second to none. He’s one of those players that you have to kick out of the gym every night. He’s the first there and the last one to leave.”
Ismael Villegas (6-3, Sr., P) gives the Panthers a strong presence down low as a returning starter, and Devin Gonzales (5-9, Sr., PG) also is coming off a good season and will have control of the offense.
Villegas was a scoring threat, with 12 points a game, while also grabbing 5.6 rebounds, and Gonzales had two assists per game.
Juan Varela, (6-1, Sr., F) also was a steady performer, with 7.3 points and 4.2 rebounds.
With so many seniors, Harge said he expects playing time to shake itself out in practice as players will force their way into the lineup. And that just makes everybody better overall.
And that’s important, because the bullseyes on the three-time defending champs’ backs are so large, they’re hard to miss.
“We emphasize that in practice,” Harge said. “You’re going to take everybody’s best shot every play, every game. So you have to play that much harder and that much better. We accept that and we move forward. We use that as motivation. We know that target is on our back.”