ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Cleveland, Cibola, Sandia All Contenders
The team that finished No. 2 last March is the preseason No. 1 in Class 5A girls basketball.
“Sounds like coachspeak,” Eldorado coach Mike Huston said.
The Eagles spent most of last season ranked at the top, only to see Sandia snatch the state title away from them in a memorable championship game at the Pit.
On the eve of the 2010-11 season, Eldorado — also the 5A state runner-up in 2008 — carries the early torch.
“There are a lot of good teams out there,” said Huston. “For us to be the preseason No. 1 is an honor, but we still have a lot to prove.”
The Eagles lost their emotional sparkplug, point guard Kya DeGarmo, to graduation, but Eldorado returns a strong quartet in C.C. Rode, Madison Lopez, Gina Okoye and Kayla Dobson. No team more ably forced opponents into mistakes last season than Eldorado, and the Eagles remain a defensive headache.
But Huston said this team is more balanced offensively than last year.
“Those four kids I mentioned can score anywhere from 15-20 points each (on a given night),” he said. Rode will take over a bulk of the point guard duties.
Even a team like Cleveland, the preseason No. 2, had some personnel transitions, as standout guard Courtnie Latham moved to Houston.
But the Storm, a playoff team in their first season, should be in the discussion.
Junior post Sara Hattis, at 6-3, averaged in double figures in scoring and rebounding last season, and she can step out and shoot the medium-range jumper. The point guard duties are being handled by senior Mariah Gonzales, and the Storm have a fine sharpshooter in 5-7 junior Caitlyn Espinoza.
“We’re going to be extremely competitive,” coach Felicia Boatman said. “People will have to prepare for us every week.”
Class 5A’s No. 3, Cibola, opens the season at 6 Wednesday night in the Pit against No. 5 La Cueva. For the Cougars, senior Amber Battle, at 5-11, can play any position on the floor. But Cibola has to replace 6-2 post Korina Chapman, who’s now at Boston College. Kassandra Harris, a 5-11 sophomore, is a candidate.
“I have high expectations for all of my teams, and this one is no different,” Cibola coach Lori Stephenson said. “I’ve got a squad that should definitely be in the hunt for it all.”
Sandia, the preseason No. 4, returns two of 5A’s top players in 5-10 junior guard Elena Velasquez and 6-1 senior post Camille Boal.
Velasquez was crucial in the Matadors’ title victory over Eldorado.
“She isn’t the flashy kid who draws the most attention,” Sandia coach Susan Kubala said. “In that last game, there were only a handful of baskets she was not involved in.”
Boal, along with Hattis, are two of 5A’s premier posts.
“Camille is a beast,” Cleveland’s Boatman said.
Not that the Matadors don’t have change. Post Ebony Walker and guard Jaleesa Russell graduated from that championship team, as well as six other seniors. Also key for Sandia is the performance of 5-2 senior point guard Jennifer Foster.
Fifth-ranked La Cueva had a major setback last January when junior forward Jamie Parker, who was leading the Bears in scoring, was lost for the season with a torn ACL. She is back — and, coach Abbie Carlson said — better than ever.
“I’ve never seen someone come back and look as good as she does,” Carlson said.
The senior-dominated Bears lack some size, but they’ll try to make up the difference with a revamped, up-tempo style, and they do have veteran guards.
“When it all shakes out with our district,” Kubala said, “you’ll have some really good teams that might not have good records.”
In District 1-5A, the top challenger to Cleveland should be Volcano Vista, the preseason No. 8. The Hawks return four starters. Junior point guard Emma Fenske, who missed most of 2009-10 with a knee injury, is back. She and junior post Schylar Malone — who led the team last season in scoring and rebounding are a formidable tandem. Volcano Vista is carrying only two seniors.