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James Yodice: Cibola boys have marked improvement in a year

If you’re searching for a boys basketball team that has been off radar all season but is, on paper, the most improved from last year, it has to be the Cibola Cougars.

Cibola, if my math is correct, already has won nine times as many games this season as it did in 2018-19.

“Sometimes,” longtime Cougars coach Ray Rodriguez said, “when you were as bad as we were last year, you have to learn to win again.”

Cibola has perhaps never had a season as unsettling and difficult as last year, when the Cougars struggled and labored for three months, winning just one of their 25 games.

But Cibola already has nine wins this season, and in fact the Cougars (9-11) are 9-7 after an 0-4 start.

And on its own, this is an impressive résumé, as Cibola has already beaten Class 4A’s No. 1 team, Valley, and taken down two highly ranked teams – Volcano Vista, then ranked No. 3 in 5A, and Cleveland, then ranked No. 1 – in the Cougars’ own district, 1-5A.

Plus, Cibola has five losses of six points or fewer.

“The parity is unbelievable,” said Rodriguez. “Doesn’t really matter who is ranked anymore.”

Perhaps most impressively of all, Cibola is doing this with an extremely young roster, one of the youngest in all of 5A.

The Cougars have just two seniors.

Senior guard Zach Mascareñas is one of them, and he’s been solid for Cibola throughout the season. Six-foot-6 sophomore forward Brady Arrenius is nearly averaging a double-double for the Cougars. Jacob Oliveras and Steven Barela have been steady and productive role players.

Come selection Sunday — which is fast approaching, by the way — Cibola (2-2 in district) hopes to be invited to the 5A playoff party. Cibola is one of a few schools sitting on that bubble.

However, if the Cougars can get to the finish line in the 1-5A regular season in third or fourth place, their ticket definitely will be punched into March. If not, they’ll have to hope those quality wins (Valley and Volcano Vista in particular) will be beneficial on the list of criteria.

300: Of the 27 schools that play girls basketball in Class 5A, only seven are coached by women. Four of those seven can be found in southern New Mexico — Deming, Gadsden, Las Cruces and Oñate.

The other three are all coaching in District 1-5A. And all three now belong to the very small 300-win club.

Volcano Vista’s Lisa Villareal on Tuesday night reached that plateau after the Hawks beat Atrisco Heritage.

“You know,” said the 49-year-old Villareal, “basketball has always been my passion.”

Cibola’s Lori Mabrey reached 300 earlier this season at a tournament in Las Cruces. Cleveland’s Susan Kubala surpassed 300 several years ago, and her career includes lengthy stints at both Del Norte and Sandia before she went to Cleveland.

“It’s an accomplishment for all of us,” Villareal said. “Hopefully, it paves the way for the younger coaches. I’m just hoping that every game we play … we can inspire them to want to do it.”

Villareal, an Española native who coached the Sundevils and Capital before she became head coach at Volcano Vista, has three state championships with the Hawks: 2012, 2014 and 2016. Volcano Vista is 18-2 this season.

She said 229 of her 300 career wins have come at Volcano Vista.

“It’s not an easy thing for women to step into these roles,” she said.

NEW ENVIRONS: While the boys in District 1-5A continue to slug it out, with Class 5A’s fourth-ranked team — Cleveland — sitting in a tie for fourth place in its own district after a win Wednesday over Rio Rancho, it is worth mentioning how the Rams’ season may have been impacted by the loss of guard Owen Olney.

The Olney family moved south after last season, and he landed at Magdalena — which is currently the only undefeated boys team in the state.

Olney, last spring’s state high jump champion in 5A, is averaging 17 points a game for the Steers, who are ranked No. 2 in Class 2A behind three-time defending state champ Pecos.

On Tuesday night, Magdalena has a road game at Pecos.

THIS AND THAT: Villareal isn’t the only metro coach to have reached a numerical milestone recently. Manzano boys coach Dominick Romero last week earned his 200th career victory. Romero previously was a head coach at Cobre, Hot Springs (current Tigers coach Derek Bean once played for Romero in Truth or Consequences), Socorro and, before he took over at Manzano, at Valencia. He also is a former women’s coach at Western New Mexico.