When it comes to girls high school basketball powers, Peñasco does not exactly leap to mind.
After all, the Class 2A Panthers have not won a championship since, well, ever.
To their credit, tough, the Panthers have been in the championship three times, including in 2018 when they lost 49-38 to Fort Sumner/House.
But the coveted blue trophy has eluded their grasp and it is something that has left the Peñasco players with a rather large chip on their collective shoulders.
“A lot of people have doubted us a lot before,” said senior wing Adrianna Tafoya. “That has given us a lot of fuel and that motivates us.”
The Panthers are quite determined to change perceptions under new head coach Mandy Montoya.
“And the practicing,” Tafoya said. “We work really hard for the bigger goal at the end.”
Montoya, who spent the past four years as the associate head coach at Northern New Mexico College, has brought a different mindset and regimen to the team.
“Coming in, it’s always tough as a new coach,” she said. “These players have really bought in and it ultimately starts with them. They do a good job of leadership.”
While the talent level at Peñasco was high and loaded with experience with seven seniors, it lacked refinement, Montoya said, which made the job attractive.
“Coming in, there was a lot of skill, but they did a lot of work over the summer,” she said. “They put in a lot of time … just to get better individually.”
The team relies on a versatile attack but, unlike most northern teams, the first option is to get the ball inside, specifically to 5-foot, 10-inch senior post Carly Gonzales, one of the top players in the state. She is averaging a double with more than 25 points a game and 12 rebounds, as well as 3.5 steals and 2.5 blocks.
“We can play in a multiple of systems, but we can go inside a lot because we have a really great post,” Montoya said.
The 5-6 Tafoya is another threat, from the wing, either slashing to the bucket as teams try to take Gonzales out of the picture, or popping from the outside. She averaging 15 points with five boards, five assists and five steals.
Senior forward Ariana MacAuley (5-9), who helps give the Panthers more size underneath, is a blue-collar player, collecting seven rebounds a game.
Senior point guard Alexandria Sandoval not only directs traffic up top, but also is a defensive catalyst, with five steals a game.
“Our big focus over the summer was skill work and plays into the post,” Montoya said. “They did work on that every day. Now they’re able to finish right or left.
“They’re athletic, they run the floor well. And Carly Gonzales has already had two 30-point games back to back.”
She’s ably backed up by 5-11 senior Angelina Archuleta, while junior Naomi Snake, also 5-11, is giving the Panthers one of the state’s tallest rosters, regardless of classification.
While the team can get up and down the floor with anybody, it flourishes in the half court.
“It definitely is a lot of inside out,” Montoya said. “There are schemes that slow you down, so we have to execute in half court.”
The whole atmosphere around the team is completely different, Sandoval said.
“I was doubted a lot,” she said of her underclassmen years. “This year, we have a new coach, and we’re motivated and everything is positive. And now that I have a chance to lead this team I feel very grateful. We all play good and it’s so different.”
Coach Montoya, who has a championship pedigree, winning state with Coronado in 2003, got her first coaching experience under legendary coach Ron Drake at Pojoaque Valley.
Couple that with her collegiate coaching experience and it’s been a new environment for the players, and one in which they have thrived.
“She expected a lot out of us, but we expect a lot of ourselves, too,” MacAuley said. “I feel like since she was a college coach, she runs practice like a college coach. We’re at the highest level and expecting success.”