No amount of coachspeak is going to allow Lisa Villareal to dodge the inescapable truth that her Volcano Vista Hawks are running the proverbial point in Class 5A girls basketball this season.
The Hawks won the 5A state championship in historic fashion in overtime against Hobbs back in May, and they return four starters. That includes two University of New Mexico signees in guards Jaelyn Bates and Natalia Chavez. It was Chavez’s banked half-court shot, an instant legendary 3-pointer, that sank the Eagles.
“If they don’t repeat,” Sandia coach Lee Kettig said, “somebody played a hell of a game.”
Guards Kennedy Brown and Savannah McGuire, plus 6-foot Angelyn Aranda and 5-10 Taejhuan Hill, also are back for Volcano Vista.
“They’re humble and they’re hungry,” said Villareal, who has coached the Hawks to four blue trophies and thus knows what lies ahead for her team over the next three-plus months, although this is the most experienced team she’s had at Volcano Vista that is trying to repeat. “We know the pressures that come the following season after winning a state title.”
No one is prepared to argue that 5A’s two best teams, and by a wide margin, are Volcano Vista and Hobbs. The Eagles feature junior guard Wisdom Anthony, one of 5A’s best players. Hobbs is in the Dallas area for a tournament this weekend.
That’s not to say 5A is devoid of teams with high expectations. La Cueva, Centennial, Farmington and Sandia are among the high-profile pursuers.
The Bears were steamrolled 75-49 by Volcano Vista earlier this week, but La Cueva and new coach Marisa Cogan retain several terrific senior starters in guards Rylie Ottmann (5-5) and Carolina Romero (a 5-5 shooting guard), plus 5-7 wing Teona Savic.
The loss of senior point guard Jerzie Jones, however, certainly will impact La Cueva as she was both a scorer and the team’s best defender. Jones injured her knee in the summer and is not expected back at this point.
Sandia returns its senior captain, 5-9 senior guard Mariah Maes, who is going to try to fill some of the void left behind by the graduated Vianè Cumber, now playing for the Lobos.
The Matadors started three freshmen on opening night — Hope Giddings, Sydney Benally and Audriana Wright — and that trio combined for 48 points in the first game. Kettig said “all of them have the potential to play college basketball at a high level.”
District 2-5A remains arguably the most competitive league in the state. In addition to La Cueva and Sandia, Farmington is led by senior guard/wing Kiiyani Anitielu, and always-competitive Piedra Vista should get talented forward Lanae Billy back this season from an injury.
Eldorado graduated its two best players, although the Eagles do feature a gifted freshman in 5-9 combo guard Bella Hines, who scored 25 points in her debut. The Eagles only return two varsity players and have 10 girls with no varsity experience.
West Mesa started four freshmen in the spring, and three of them were on the all-district team. The Mustangs have fewer than 20 girls in the program, coach Manny Otero said.
District 1’s second-place chase will include Cleveland, which has nine seniors, seven of whom have varsity experience. With Lori Mabrey having retired, Joe Sena takes over as coach at Cibola, but the Cougars only have one player with extensive experience, junior point guard Leilani Soriano. Rio Rancho has three starters back, including senior shooting guard Olivia Bergsten, who led the Rams in scoring last season, and 5-10 junior guard Halle Peterson, the team’s top rebounder the last two seasons. Atrisco Heritage went young in the spring, and hopes a season of experience will make them more competitive.
District 5’s favorite could be Albuquerque High, which features outstanding post player, 6-1 junior forward/post Leilani Love. She and 5-10 junior point guard Ariana Sanchez are AHS’ only two returning varsity players for new coach Janai Campos. The Bulldogs will get an early test on Saturday afternoon against Centennial.
The post-Marty Zeller era at Los Lunas begins as former assistant coach Anne Salazar steps into the role. The Tigers were ravaged by graduation, however, and only two role players return in 5-11 senior post Klarissa Hall and 5-4 shooting guard Jessika Otero.
“This is definitely a legitimate rebuilding year,” Salazar said.
Both Rio Grande and Manzano are struggling to find players, and both will have just a varsity and C-Team, but no JV. The Ravens were down to just six varsity players as of Wednesday of this week, coach Ryan Noce said, and with Rio Grande’s new gym still not finished, both the girls and boys will be on the road the entire season.
CLASS 4A: From the metro area, Highland and Bernalillo are favorites to win their respective districts.
The Spartans were a 3 seed at state in the spring, and they return one of New Mexico’s best and most exciting players in 5-6 senior combo guard Juliana Aragon, a southpaw who scored 36 and 34 points, respectively, in the season’s first two games. As yet, she is undecided as she looks for a college, but has drawn interest and offers from multiple schools.
Bernalillo returns four starters in all, including top defender Gabby O’Hara, a 5-9 junior. Coach Raymond Aragon says the Spartans are a better shooting team this winter than they were in the spring season.
Who’s the second-best team behind Bernalillo in 6-4A? It could be Albuquerque Academy, a veteran group led by 5-6 senior shooting guard Reagan Madonia and 5-9 senior forward/post Elena Jordan. Those two led the Chargers in scoring last season, and Academy has a deep bench that should allow them to push the pace.
Hope Christian returns a majority of its roster from the spring, including four starters led by 6-foot junior post Kathleen Obisike, a strong finisher with either hand. She averaged 14 points and 12 rebounds last season.
Valley’s been struggling with numbers and senior point guard Shaela Carrillo leads the Vikings. Valley won’t have a C-Team this season. Del Norte graduated seven seniors off the spring team and is rebuilding, coach David Gonzales said.
- Highland in 5-4A begins its post Cailee Crawford-era, but the Hornets are well equipped to contend in the postseason. Veteran senior 5-1 point guard Deniece Ryan will have to assume more of a scoring role as will junior Aaliyah Nevarez. Zoriah Jackson, a 6-1 senior, gives Highland the best post in the district.
“Our district is gonna be tough, but I don’t think any team can beat us if we play to our capability,” Hornets coach Lonnie Neal said.
St. Pius and coach Brio Rode are struggling with low numbers in the program, (17 players in grades 9-12) and the Sartans took only eight girls to the Gallup tournament this week. (The Bengals might be 4A’s favorite as the season begins.) Of those eight, three are ninth-graders and none is a senior.
Junior Maesyn Lopez at Belen could “be something special,” Eagles coach Chris Storey said. Belen has a largely young team, with four girls returning from last season and, Storey said, 35 new girls.
Valencia’s small, guard-oriented squad (this team could often have four-guard lineups) on Thursday posted an impressive 1-point win over 5A Cleveland and the Jaguars have plenty of experience.
CLASS 3A: Sandia Prep was a district champion in the spring season, and the Sundevils, who began this season 0-3, have a new coach in Alex Tackman, whose team has just one senior. Posts Jordan Schierloh (5-9) and Mika Juan (5-10) will need to do plenty of scoring and rebounding.
In that same district, Cottonwood Classical Prep coach Sam Gavaldon believes the Coyotes could be on the verge of a breakthrough, with all five starters back from last season, including the two leading scorers in 5-7 guard Samantha Long, a junior, and senior Kayla Coleman.
Bosque School features a solid senior backcourt with 5-5 point guard Katia Chavez and 5-5 running mate Raila Jaffer.
CLASS 2A: Menaul could be poised to make some rare noise; the Panthers already have a nice victory over CCP. Longtime former Cibola High assistant Sharon Max has taken over the program. It’s a young team, and Max is trying to work in some international students from Italy into the sport for the first time.
NOTE: New NMAA member school Chesterton Academy, located in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, is playing as an independent this season and is expected to join a Class 1A district next year.
METRO PLAYERS TO WATCH
Natalia Chavez, 5-9, sr., G, Volcano Vista: When Chavez is feeling it beyond the arc, she’s about as much fun to watch shoot as any girl in New Mexico. Signed with UNM. A Hawks legend forever for her state game-winner in the spring.
Jaelyn Bates, 5-6, sr., G, Volcano Vista: The Hawks’ composed and dependable floor leader. She is quick, has great handles, and is capable of scoring from long-range or closer to the basket. Also signed with UNM.
Juliana Aragon, 5-6, sr., G, Bernalillo: Actually, it would be extraordinarily fun to put together a 3-point shooting contestbetween Aragon and Volcano’s Chavez (the two are friends). Great talent.
Leilani Love, 6-1, jr., F/C, Albuquerque High: Her third season with the Bulldogs and her game continues to evolve and improve. A matchup nightmare for most teams down low.
Deniece Ryan, 5-1, sr., G, Highland: Signed with NAIA Arizona Christian, and it’s her team to run with the Hornets looking for another playoff run.
Bella Hines, 5-9, fresh., G, Eldorado: What a varsity debut Hines had, with 25 points in her first game with the Eagles. Already an extremely polished player.
Rylie Ottmann, 5-5, sr., G, La Cueva: The Colorado-Colorado Springs signee assumes a larger responsibility after the injury to Jerzie Jones. But she is quite capable.
Mariah Maes, 5-9, sr., G, Sandia: The Matadors have as much promising youth as any team in 5A; Maes brings the much-needed veteran leadership.
Payton Edwards, 5-6, sr., G, Moriarty: One of 4A’s more unheralded players, she is coming off a terrific (albeit shortened) junior season. Her game has plenty of polish at both ends of the floor.
Kennedy Brown, 5-4, sr., G, Volcano Vista: Also going to UNM — to play soccer. She is an outstanding basketball player in her own right and an extremely valuable piece to the Hawks’ puzzle.