New season, new conference - Albuquerque Journal

New season, new conference

Forward/center See’Airrah Evans-Collins, left, is one of the Eagles’ senior leaders. (Courtesy of Northern New Mexico College)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The men’s and women’s basketball teams at Northern New Mexico College were among the hardest hit by the governor’s health mandates as both squads were forced to take an entire season off.

Now, the Eagles men’s and women’s programs are getting ready for a new season in a new conference.

The program has joined the Continental Athletic Conference, which has three automatic berths into the NAIA’s 64-team championship tournament, said coach Ryan Cordova.

And the goal here is to be one of those teams, he said.

“That’s our goal to not only get there, but also to make some noise when we do get there,” Cordova said.

Cordova restocked the Eagles roster with a range of local, national and international talent, culling some of the best players with New Mexico ties, as well as bringing in transfer players looking for a new start.

“We’ve had some big additions to our program,” Cordova said, attributing a lot of that recruiting success to his new assistant coach, former New Mexico State standout Billy Keys.

Among the players expected to make an impact, point guard Elijah Landrum is a former Southern Methodist University player out of Tulsa.

“He’s huge as far as the maturity of our guards,” Cordova said.

Jamal Harris, a 6-foot, 3-inch guard from Otero Junior College with a 52-inch vertical leap “is definitely a human highlight film,” Cordova said. “I’m really excited about what he brings.”

Then there are the New Mexico players, including 6-4 guard Joe Saterfield, who played at Centennial, and 6-10 Damian Thomas from Organ Mountain (Oñate), and former New Mexico Gatorade player of the year and two-time state champ Joziah Ramos of Atrisco Heritage, who played a season at Western New Mexico.

“He’s a huge addition,” Cordova said of Ramos.

“I feel we’re strong at every position,” the coach said. “I feel like we’re two deep at every position right now.”

The Eagles will need that depth as they play three D-I teams in New Mexico State, UTEP and Northern Colorado. NNMC also plays local Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference teams New Mexico Highlands and Fort Lewis.

“And we’re doing well in the classroom,” Cordova said. “Having these guys come in here as all-around student athletes, it makes a huge difference. They’re here to put in hard work and get an education. They’re good people, good students and good basketball players. We’re going to be fun to watch this season.”

From Brazil, Victor Faria is one of several international players at Northern New Mexico College. (Courtesy of Northern New Mexico College)

Perhaps the best thing going for the women’s team is having a high-profile coach who has played at the highest level.

And former NBA player and New Mexico star J.R. Giddens is looking to inject that up-tempo style of modern professional basketball into his squad in his first actual season of college coaching.

“I was looking for players who were versatile, and can play the fast break and shoot a lot of threes,” he said of his strategy in revamping his lineup that returns just five players from the 2019 squad, which went 7-19. “We’re going to be playing more of the newer-age basketball, where the fours and fives (forwards and centers) can come in and get the ball moving in transitions. I want them all to be able to play fast and to shoot it from the outside.”

Given the team’s height – Ni ‘Asia McIntosh at 6 foot, 2 inches is the tallest player – it is a strategy almost born of necessity, Giddens said.

“As a smaller team, being in half-court situations might not favor us,” he said.

McIntosh, from Gallup High School, who originally played with New Mexico Junior College for two years before signing with UNM in 2018, has been out of basketball until Giddens lured her back to the court.

But McIntosh and a number of the other players are looking fresh after a season away from the game.

“For us, it was a little harder because we weren’t playing the girls being home and the COVID protocols, they weren’t able to play as much so that season affected us hard,” he said. “But I think they found their love and passion for basketball again. Even with COVID, I know they’re just as excited to play as I am.”

Each at 6-0, Ethena Silva, a freshman from Santa Fe High School, and returning senior Kristen Davis are the only other players with real size.

However, junior-college guards Jaidyn Fontenette, Kylira Williams, Heavyn Jordan and Chris’Alee Patterson all bring plenty of experience. As does 5-9 senior forward/center See’Airrah Evans-Collins.

The incoming freshmen are primarily locals, except for highly regarded small forward Jwan Gore out of San Diego, who is known as a defensive stopper whose offensive skills are improving.

On the local front, Miranda Salazar and Destiny Valdez both come from local power Española Valley, Rebecca Sorenson hails from Capital and Rachel Williams is from Eldorado.

“I’m pretty happy,” Giddens said. “Everybody is doing everything I thought they would be able to do, and more.”

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