“Coach gives us a word every week,” said junior shooting guard Azia Himeur. “They all go with ‘Rise up.’ ”
None of Cougars coach Lori Mabrey’s previous seasons at Cibola was like the 2018-19 campaign, a tumultuous year that saw the Cougars win less than 20 percent of its games as they dealt with various personnel issues.
Hence, there was cause for this program, which has enjoyed so much success under Mabrey, to craft a motto as it hit the reset button during the offseason.
“I was really glad to put last season way, way, way behind us, because it was a hot mess,” said Mabrey.
On Friday night, Cibola won its sixth game of the season — already surpassing last season’s 5-21 mark — as the visiting Cougars demolished Albuquerque High 63-23 at Bulldog City.
Himeur had 17 points, senior guard Adamari Waddell 14 points as Cibola (6-3) scored 16 of the game’s first 19 points and never looked back against the Bulldogs (3-3), who were playing for the first time since Dec. 20.
Rust probably played some part in this, but not much.
Cibola’s defense and speed in transition were problematic for AHS throughout. Himeur hit two 3s in the first quarter that ended with the Cougars in front 21-6. Senior point guard Isabel Montoya played a fantastic game for Cibola on Friday, doling out at least two Division I-level assists on lengthy bounces passes on the fast break. Montoya recently signed with Pepperdine.
“We do have speed and they’re pretty close, this group of 10,” Mabrey said. “I’ve enjoyed this team. Honestly, they’re senior heavy, so they’re understanding that they have … to be locked in.”
Cibola will be the No. 5 seed at next week’s Albuquerque Metro Championships, opening on Tuesday with Valley. No. 4 West Mesa, the defending Class 5A state champion, is in that quarter of the bracket.
While AHS has been idle for two weeks, the unranked Cougars had a holiday tournament in Las Cruces last weekend.
The trip was marked by two events — losing a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter to fifth-ranked Mayfield, which outscored Cibola 17-2 in the final eight minutes of a first-round contest, and the 300th career victory for Mabrey two days later against Artesia.
“I thought our team got better down there,” Mabrey said. “And we’re making strides in the right direction. And today, we played incredibly well. The way they played today, I feel they can play with anyone in the state.”
Waddell and Himeur were two of the mainstays who returned from last season, which was both frustrating and upsetting for all concerned.
“We kind of had a chip on our shoulder and wanted to show people how we could play and forget about last year and create a new name for ourselves,” said Waddell.
Himeur said erasing the negative from last season “wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible. We’re a lot stronger than we were last year.”
Mabrey, once a playing standout at Kirtland Central and a longtime assistant at Rio Rancho before Cibola hired her away, reached 300 wins in her 15th season with Cibola.
And the team, to Mabrey’s surprise, staged something of a pre-planned ceremony at Oñate after No. 300 was official. Some past Cibola players took time to write letters to Mabrey as part of the occasion, she said.
“I told this group, karma is what it is … it was meant to happen on this team’s watch,” she said, adding, “It was really special to me.”
Mabrey and her longtime top assistant, Sharon Max, decided the best way to flush the ugliness of the 2018-19 season out of everyone’s system was simply to put on blinders and plow straight ahead. Cibola might be the team best equipped to challenge Volcano Vista in District 1-5A in February.
“We have not taken it easy on this group of kids,” Mabrey said. “We’ve pushed them to the wall as many times as we felt we could, and they’ve responded. They’ve been resilient, they’ve been coachable, they keep coming back and we keep trying to push them, even right now.”
Chemistry, Waddell said, has been integral to this team’s culture.
“It’s great,” she said. “We’ve been hanging out after practice, after school, just trying to get our team chemistry together, and it’s been helping out a lot this year.”