Any list of the upper tier in Class 5A boys basketball this season would, naturally, include a good number of teams from the metro area.
But it’s possible the road to a blue trophy in March runs through Las Cruces High School.
The Bulldawgs this season will be attempting to reach their third consecutive state championship game, and they’ve got a pair of Division I prospects in 6-foot-11 post Isaiah Carr, who has signed with Grand Canyon, and 6-1 senior guard Deuce Benjamin who has yet to make his college choice.
“With the combination of their experience, their size and their talent, and their coaching … Cruces is going to be the team to beat,” Volcano Vista coach Greg Brown said.
A large number of the metro area’s boys and girls teams open their season on Tuesday night. The Journal today is previewing the boys; the girls’ preview will appear later this week.
District 1-5A remains the state’s most accomplished and competitive district, as five of the last six state champions have come from this league, with four different schools — Rio Rancho, Volcano Vista, Atrisco Heritage (twice) and, in May, Cleveland — standing atop the 5A summit.
“I would put four of our teams in the top 10,” Rio Rancho coach Wally Salata said.
With a plethora of talent and experience returning from a pandemic-condensed spring season, the Hawks and Jaguars seem to be consensus choices as top entries from the metro area, along with La Cueva.
Atrisco Heritage, which plays host to La Cueva on Tuesday night, features a quartet of solid returners in Colby Wade (a versatile 6-5 forward/post) and guard Javier Mendoza (who went off in a state semifinal loss in the spring against Cleveland), plus juniors Chris Parra and Tony Pacheco. The Jaguars, as always, hang their hat on great shooting and team defense.
Volcano Vista’s veteran group includes 6-1, four-year guard Ja’Kwon Hill, one of 5A’s top floor leaders, plus Oscar McCoy, Kaden Valdez, Jaden Malone and 6-7 junior post Sean Alter who already is receiving college offers, Brown said.
Defending champ Cleveland only returns one starter and just several players overall from the team that beat Las Cruces in the final back in May. Talented point guard Daniel Steverson, a 6-2 sophomore, will be a focal point for the Storm.
“At the end of the day,” Cleveland coach Sean Jimenez said, “we’ll be there in the mix.”
Rio Rancho is led by 6-5 senior wing/guard Keagan Caton and the Rams, Jimenez said, have an outstanding group. Cibola features a pair of four-year players in 6-6 Brady Arrenius and 6-1 Jeremiah Ortiz.
District 2 is headed by La Cueva and 6-3 junior guard Exodus Ayers, who generally is regarded as one of the top handful of players in 5A. The Bears are big and athletic, including 6-10 sophomore Daniel Jacobsen who didn’t play in the spring due to a broken hand and who moved to New Mexico last year from Wisconsin. Ced Yates, a 6-3 junior wing/guard, and Josiah Guliford, a 5-10 junior guard, join Ayers as returning starters for La Cueva.
“I think we have a lot of potential, but we haven’t played together,” Bears coach Brian Joyce said. “Until you’re able to fit your pieces together, you don’t know what that’s going to look like.”
Both Sandia, which won 2-5A in the spring (when local teams in that large district were restricted to playing only each other in the regular season), and Eldorado, are expected to push the Bears. The Matadors’ Sean Johnson, a 6-5 senior, is, like Ayers, regarded as one of 5A’s most elite players although he will not be on the floor for Sandia until early in 2022, coach Danny Brown said without elaborating.
Eldorado has a 6-5 senior in Sean Thompson, who played as a sophomore, then moved to Maryland but has returned. The Eagles have excellent size across the board (which will be handy when they face La Cueva) and have one of the biggest rosters in 5A, a group that also features 6-6 sophomore Mike Knaub.
District 5 could be a scrum into February with the likes of Los Lunas and Santa Fe out in front. The Tigers’ 6-3 Jalin Holland, a freshman, is already a standout; junior point guard Ezra Guest also returns for what coach Travis Julian said was a relatively young, inexperienced group.
Like Joyce at La Cueva, Greg Brown begins his first full season at Albuquerque High; Rio Grande struggled through a winless spring and is hoping to bounce back led by 6-2 junior guard/wing Jonah Lopez; Manzano’s new coach is Andrew Dunnell, who left Belen to return to his alma mater. And, ironically enough, the Monarchs open on Tuesday night at Belen.
Las Cruces is the overwhelming favorite in its district, while some metro coaches believe Carlsbad could be the second-best 5A team outside the metro area. Eleven of the 13 Class 5A schools that haven’t opened the season yet are from the metro area, plus Clovis and Las Cruces. The Bulldawgs open Friday at home against Eldorado, and they’ll be in Albuquerque next week for the Joe Armijo Classic.
CLASS 4A: Eyes are going to be seriously trained on the Highland Hornets for the next three-plus months, as the Hornets return four starters, including imposing 6-9 senior Jose Murillo to anchor the middle.
Junior Alexis Dominguez, senior Joseph Woody and senior Gustavo Ayala give the Hornets options both in the paint and on the perimeter.
“I really love this group,” Highland coach Justin Woody said. “We’ve got probably as much versatility as we’ve ever had since I’ve been at Highland.”
Defending state champion Del Norte could make a run at a repeat with eight players returning, although this will be a smaller and more up-tempo look than the Knights displayed in the spring.
Del Norte’s best player, dynamic junior guard Shane Douma-Sanchez, suffered a serious knee injury in the offseason and won’t be available to Del Norte for at least the first half of the season and maybe longer. If he does return, it wouldn’t be until district, coach Jeron McIntosh said.
“4A is pretty wide open, especially if (he) doesn’t play,” Valley coach EZ Panas said.
But Del Norte has another standout in 6-1 junior combo guard Judah Casaus (who’ll need to do more scoring), a solid senior point guard in Josh Tellez and a promising shooter/scorer in junior transfer Harrison Frank from Los Alamos.
In the metro area, there are a handful of new coaches in 4A: Donald Marquez at Belen where he once played; Marcos CdeBaca at Albuquerque Academy, promoted in the late summer; and Jesse Hathoot, who left Julian’s side at Los Lunas after nine years to take over at nearby Valencia.
The Jaguars graduated eight seniors and have only one 12th grader on the roster. At Academy, CdeBaca, a former assistant at Volcano Vista and with the Chargers, brings back two starters in junior guard Kellan Gehres and senior point guard Will James. Valley is relatively undersized as it prepares for a rigorous nondistrict schedule, so rebounding and shooting will be paramount. At St. Pius, 6-4 senior combo guard Tanner Davis led the Sartans in scoring last season and is back. Belen is expected to be much improved from the spring when it finished 1-11.
At Hope Christian, 6-5 senior forward/post Kaden Miller is part of a Huskies group that is flying under the radar but could emerge as a threat. Hope missed state in the spring, when the postseason tournament fields were cut in half from 16 to eight.
“Hope is a lot better than people think,” said Del Norte’s McIntosh. “They’re one of the best teams in the state.”
This is also going to be the final season (his 28th) in the outstanding career of longtime Bernalillo coach Terry Darnell who is retiring come March. He’ll have one of his smallest teams, led by his only returning starter, 5-11 senior point guard Tristen Ludi-Herrera.
Outside the metro area, Española Valley, Gallup and Artesia are all considered strong entries.
CLASS 3A: Sandia Prep was the state runner-up to Hot Springs last spring, but the Sundevils were decimated by graduation. Mac Manzanares, a 6-5 senior, is the only returning starter for Sandia Prep which is going to be extremely inexperienced.
District rival Bosque School, the state champion from 2020, hopes it can vault back into contention for a deep playoff run. “I think we’ll be really good,” Bobcats coach Clifton Davidson said. Davidson said Hot Springs, St. Michael’s and Socorro are among the other challengers in 3A.
CLASS 2A: Menaul has changed coaches, with Dan Gayle from London taking over from Gary Boatman; the Panthers return just three seniors. Menaul opens on Tuesday at home against still relative newcomer Legacy Academy (a 1A program) on the West Side.
10 METRO PLAYERS TO WATCH
Exodus Ayers, 6-3, jr., G, La Cueva: One of those kids who could play college basketball or college football, depending on his preference. An electrifying talent.
Sean Johnson, 6-5, sr., FW, Sandia: Big Sean is one of 5A’s top scorers, although we won’t see him in uniform until after the New Year. Matchup nightmare.
Jose Murillo, 6-9, sr., P, Highland: The pandemic season of the spring didn’t allow any of us to see him much, but he’ll be at the center, quite literally, of the Hornets’ state title push.
Judah Casaus, 6-1, jr., G, Del Norte: Yes, the Knights have a stellar talent in the backcourt in Shane Douma-Sanchez, who is a scoring machine, but his running mate, Casaus, is in his own right a fantastic player.
Daniel Steverson, 6-2, soph., PG, Cleveland: The Storm are rebuilding, not that it can’t be a factor; Steverson’s performance will be important to its success.
Ja’Kwon Hill, 6-1, sr., G, Volcano Vista: Hill’s been a factor since his first varsity game as a freshman, and he could be directing a potential state champion this season.
Jalin Holland, 6-3, fresh., G, Los Lunas: The youngest of the 10 mentions here, but he’s deserving. Holland’s a special talent.
Javier Mendoza, 6-1, sr., G, Atrisco Heritage: The Jags have had some guards who can light it up, and Mendoza certainly belongs on that list.
Keagan Caton, 6-5, sr., FW, Rio Rancho: A player a bit like Sandia’s Johnson, who can fill it up from the perimeter or in the paint.
Daniel Jacobsen, 6-10, soph., C, La Cueva: Felt like we should include Jacobsen, the largest member of the Bears’ sizable roster. Will be interesting to watch his development.