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Girls’ Basketball Preview: Volcano Vista among the favorites in 5A (w/ players to watch)

Los Lunas’ Natalie Jojola, right, seen here celebrating with teammate Mia Guest last year, is one of the top players in the area. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Lisa Villareal already has three state championship rings, and in the following words, you know the Volcano Vista girls basketball coach thinks there’s a chance for a fourth.

“I’m real excited for this season,” she said.

The 2019-20 girls basketball season opened for Albuquerque Public Schools on Monday night, with Villareal’s Hawks beating La Cueva 59-49 in a potential playoff preview.

Volcano Vista, with nearly its entire starting lineup back, including two All-State caliber sophomore guards, is widely hailed as one of Class 5A’s best teams.

“It’s a different atmosphere,” explained Villareal, whose team suffered a tough overtime loss to Carlsbad in last year’s state quarterfinals. “Because this year, that one year, their maturity levels has been a big difference for us.”

Pretty much all of Volcano Vista’s best players are underclassmen, led by Jaelyn Bates and Natalia Chavez, as good a guard tandem as exists in any class in New Mexico.

But Volcano Vista is going to have company in that hot pursuit of a blue trophy. The other Vista, Piedra, is loaded and experienced, and a team that is going to battle with La Cueva for a district title led by first-team, All-State sophomore guard Lanae Billy.

“They might be 1 and 2 in the state,” West Mesa coach Manny Otero said of La Cueva and Piedra Vista. His Mustangs outlasted Piedra Vista in overtime in the state semis last March.

La Cueva has a largely young-looking lineup, with an abundance of sophomores. But they all played extensively as freshmen, and they’re going to supplement the work of returning first-team All-State senior guard Kaya Ingram as she looks to close out her great career with a state title.

“When we shoot well,” Bears coach Robert Perea said, “we can put some teams away.”

There isn’t much size on this roster, but then again, West Mesa during its state championship run earlier this year had a relatively small roster, too.

The Mustangs lost several crucial pieces, although guards Emily Burk and Jazmin Cordova give Otero a pair of fourth-year starters who know his program. Otero said his team had a terrific (and surprisingly successful) summer.

“I like the position we’re in,” Otero said. “Now we’re the team that’s gonna be overlooked this year, and under the radar. So I’m kind of excited about that opportunity.”

Eldorado has a new coach in Leroy Barela. His daughter Cece was a member of that West Mesa squad last season, but she’s followed her father to the Northeast Heights. The Eagles are ripe with good guards.

“The sky is the limit for this team,” coach Barela said. “If we stay healthy and continue to grow, we’ll surprise a lot of teams.”

In District 1, Cibola had an awful 2018-19 season, but the Cougars may be the second-best team behind Volcano Vista in a district that’s relatively balanced once you get past Volcano Vista.

District 2 will certainly be the most competitive district in the state, with all five schools having made the playoffs last season and expected to do so again next year.

District 5 has a definite favorite in a young (but veteran) Sandia team led by junior Viané Cumber, but Albuquerque High brings back its entire starting lineup and will have some size to challenge the Matadors.

“Our first goal is to make a run at winning district,” AHS coach Doug Dorame said. “We haven’t won district since 2015, and we’d like to make a run at it again.”

Hobbs was 5A’s No. 1 playoff seed last March, although several of the Eagles’ high impact players have graduated as they look to retool for another run. District rival Carlsbad, which lost a heartbreaking 1-point game to Hobbs in the semifinals, have a good number of players returning.

Centennial, which already has an impressive win over Los Lunas, could emerge as the strongest threat from Las Cruces.

CLASS 4A: Rare to get such an early-season gem, but mark down Saturday afternoon as Los Lunas, the defending state champion, visits Highland in what might be a game that will be seen again very late in the season.

The Tigers only graduated three players off their championship team, and return veteran guards like Natalie Jojola (All-State first team last season) and Mia Guest, among others.

Highland and coach Lonnie Neal have three starters, led by junior combo guard Cailee Crawford, back off its 20-7 team that was not at full strength in the state tournament quarterfinals where it was beaten.

“I really like my group,” Neal said.

Both Hope Christian and St. Pius have new, but familiar, head coaches. David Medina left Del Norte for the Huskies, who saw a few players transfer out of the program and will be very inexperienced. Brio Rode, once a former boys assistant at Sandia and a former playing standout at Rio Rancho, is coaching the Sartans. Bernalillo won 15 games but is hoping to improve its playoff seed this upcoming season.

CLASS 3A: No local team made it even as far as the state quarterfinals last season, although Sandia Prep coach Jerome Romero is thinking big this season.

“I think our experience will get us past a couple of more rounds (at state),” he said.

Former Eldorado coach Mike Huston, after a few years away from coaching, has taken over at Bosque School.

Girls basketball capsules

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