The 2021-22 Class 5A high school boys basketball season belonged primarily to Volcano Vista and Las Cruces.
That dual dominance scenario is unlikely to repeat in the 2022-23 season, which is now underway for nearly all teams.
“Everyone,” said Sandia coach Danny Brown, “is a little more even this year.”
Indeed, there is general consensus that a handful of teams in 5A – including Volcano Vista, the first No. 1 in the coaches’ poll, Atrisco Heritage, Eldorado, Carlsbad, Sandia and Las Cruces – represent possibly the elite of the 5A division, with teams like Los Lunas, West Mesa, Santa Fe and Cleveland also expected to be heard from.
Volcano Vista returns the best 1-2 size combo in 6-foot-8 senior Sean Alter and 6-7 sophomore Kenyon Aguino. And the Hawks, as always, count on guard depth and defense.
Atrisco Heritage features several outstanding guards, led by senior Chris Parra, but also including the dynamic sophomore duo of Marquise Renfro and Latavious Morris.
District 2 has a few teams – Sandia, Eldorado, West Mesa and perhaps La Cueva – that will provide entertaining basketball in January and February. The athletic Matadors have four senior starters, including guards Andrew Hill, Ely Lovato and Dalen Moyer.
Eldorado and veteran coach Roy Sanchez have a blend of size and guards, with 6-2 senior point guard Caileb Parham running the show. And the Eagles already have a road win at Carlsbad.
West Mesa – which dropped a 64-58 decision Tuesday to Atrisco Heritage – has a pair of four-year players in 6-5 Sonny Ortiz and 6-foot Brandon Lagunas, and that duo led the Mustangs in scoring last season.
La Cueva has a new coach in Eric Orell, and the Bears lost a couple of their standouts who transferred out of state. But the Bears should remain highly relevant, led by the likes of senior guard Ced Yates.
Cleveland has one of 5A’s top talents in junior guard Daniel Steverson and looks to fight with Volcano Vista and Atrisco Heritage in District 1. Gabe Martinez is Cibola’s first new coach since the late 1990s – replacing Ray Rodriguez, who retired from coaching.
Las Cruces, which fell to Volcano Vista in last season’s state final, picked up an impressive win Tuesday, 56-54 in overtime over Carlsbad, announcing that the Bulldawgs haven’t gone anywhere. The Cavemen are a team many metro area coaches believe could emerge as the top threat outside Albuquerque. Las Cruces, by the way, visits Volcano Vista on Friday night.
From District 5, Los Lunas, led by the fantastic tandem of Jalin Holland and guard Ezra Guest, shapes up as the favorite. Albuquerque High has a new head coach in Leroy Barela, who was previously coaching the Eldorado girls. Manzano and Rio Grande expect to be more competitive in that district, which also includes mainstay Santa Fe High.
• Highland is coming off its first state title in 50 years and mounts a title defense in 4A. Two starters return in 5-9 guards Alexis Dominguez and Raul Stanford, and 6-5 Brandon Medina, a strong bench player last season, is moving into a key starting role. The key question will be how Highland proceeds having graduated the 4A MVP, 6-8 Jose Murillo.
In Highland’s district, both Belen and St. Pius were also state semifinalists last season. The Sartans are big, talented and could be a team to watch for in March. Taos, another team with lots of size, and Artesia are expected to be strong 4A threats.
Del Norte has played in the last two 4A finals and features arguably the division’s top player in senior guard Shane Douma-Sanchez. The Knights are part of a loaded district that includes Albuquerque Academy (which hopes to have standout senior guard Kellan Gehres fully healthy for the second half of the season after he was hurt during football), plus Hope Christian (which just beat Eldorado), Valley and Bernalillo.
In 3A, Bosque School and Sandia Prep return a large chunk of their rosters; the Sundevils have to replace the graduated Mac Manzanares, one of 3A’s best players.
Menaul in Class 2A is coming off its first state championship and might been even deeper this season. The Panthers return three starters – led by Prashant Chouhan, but have had a recent coaching change. Former coach, Gary Boatman, is back leading the program after previous coach Dan Gayle left a couple of weeks ago for a job in Atlanta.
Marty Zeller, who coached the Los Lunas girls to five state championships before leaving for another job in the southern part of the state, has returned to the metro area. He is coaching Class 1A Legacy Academy.
Two-time defending 5A state champion Volcano Vista’s winning streak is up to 44 games after two lopsided wins to open the season.
Although the Hawks graduated a handful of key seniors, they remain well equipped to contend behind the likes of 6-foot junior forward Taejhuan Hill and senior guard Mari Manzanares.
Other teams expected to be in the mix well into March include Hobbs (which returns standout guard Wisdom Anthony), plus La Cueva, Sandia, Centennial, Farmington and Las Cruces. Albuquerque High, Organ Mountain and Cleveland are other teams with hopes of making postseason noise.
Sandia had a young starting lineup last season that won 17 games; Sydney Benally, Audri Wright and Hope Giddings are all 5-9 sophomores, and the Matadors could be poised to make a leap.
La Cueva graduated some key pieces, but top returners include 5-8 junior Eva Love (who has multiple D-1 offers) and senior combo guard Olivia Haddock, and the Bears have some other experience returning.
Eldorado has a new head coach in Gary Ellis, and the Eagles also feature arguably the state’s best player in sophomore guard Bella Hines.
Albuquerque High, led by 6-1 senior post Leilani Love, has depth and talent and is coming off a 20-win season, making the Bulldogs the favorites in District 5.
Valencia, Highland and Hope Christian should all be challengers in Class 4A. The Huskies return an outstanding post in 6-foot Kathleen Obisike, and they’ll be a prohibitive favorite in their district that includes Bernalillo. The Spartans reached the state final last season, although they graduated elite guard Juliana Aragon.
Highland, led by senior shooting guard Aaliyah Nevarez, remains a potent team in 4A, and the Hornets also feature 6-1 senior Rebekah Carpenter and 5-5 senior Vania Limas.
In that district, the Hornets certainly will face a challenge from Valencia, which reached the state quarterfinals with a young team last March, and also possibly from St. Pius, which returns most of its roster led by junior guard Alyssa Maes.
METRO’S TOP PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shane Douma-Sanchez, 6-1, sr., G, Del Norte: Perhaps New Mexico’s best pure scorer; don’t be surprised if he has a 50-point game this season.
Sean Alter, 6-8, sr., P, Volcano Vista: Alter is a strong, physical player and there are few teams that can match up with his size and physicality.
Daniel Steverson, 6-2, jr., G, Cleveland: There isn’t much Steverson can’t do, and he’s going to be one of 5A’s strongest and most productive guards.
Jalin Holland, 6-3, soph., G, Los Lunas: Averaged 20 points and seven rebounds as a freshman, and is always worth the price of admission. A D-1 talent.
Andrew Hill, 6-2, sr., G/Ely Lovato, 6-2, sr., G, Sandia: The Matadors will be leaning heavily on both, and they can handle the workload.
Kenyon Aguino, 6-7, soph., F, Volcano Vista: This is already one of 5A’s best players, and is a natural scorer both around the basket and from distance.
Ced Yates, 6-3, sr., G/F, La Cueva: Will likely have to take on a higher scoring profile this season for the Bears, and he’s a very athletic guard.
Kellan Gehres, 6-0, sr., SG, Albuquerque Academy: Won’t see him for a while as he comes back from a football injury, but this is one of 4A’s most well-rounded players.
Alexis Dominguez, 5-10, sr., G, Highland: He already is emerging as the top scoring threat for the Hornets, a role that needed to be filled.
Chris Parra, 6-0, sr., G, Atrisco Heritage: On a team flush with oustanding guards, Parra is perhaps the best and most versatile of the group.
Caileb Parham, 6-2, sr., G, Eldorado: Parham presents all sorts of issues for a defense, as he handles the ball, he can shoot, and he can create around the basket.
Bella Hines, 5-9, soph., G, Eldorado: Here is a player who can do it all, and someone who averaged over 22 points as a freshman. UNM has already offered her a scholarship.
Sydney Benally, 5-9, soph., G/F, Sandia: A versatile, savvy player whose game is extremely polished, and already is drawing plenty of college interest. Averaged 15-plus points as a freshman.
Taejhuan Hill, 6-0, jr., F, Volcano Vista: Pretty much a guaranteed double-double any time the Hawks take the floor, she is primed for a huge season.
Leilani Love, 6-1, sr., P, Albuquerque High: A tremendously skilled threat on the low post, Love is a matchup nightmare; she averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds last season.
Eva Love, 5-8, jr., G, La Cueva: Love, Leilani’s cousin, has already has racked up a handful of Division I offers, including one from New Mexico State.
Alyssa Maes, 5-8, jr., G, St. Pius: Sartans coach Brio Rode pays Maes the highest compliment when she says that Maes plays very much like she did back in the day.
Kathleen Obisike, 6-0, sr, F, Hope Christian: One of the most influential players at the 4A level, she is a double-double machine for the Huskies.
Aaliyah Nevarez, 6-0, sr., SG, Highland: Nevarez represents pure offense for the Hornets, and despite her length, she’s quite capable from long range.
Mari Manzanares, 5-7, sr., G, Volcano Vista: The Hawks’ backcourt will look vastly different this season, and Manzanares could be the most important of those guards.
Hope Giddings, 5-9, soph., G/F, Sandia: Benally is the most polished of the Matadors’ three outstanding 10th-graders, but Giddings is a superb player in her own right.
Gabby O’Hara, 5-7, jr., G, Bernalillo: With Juliana Aragon having graduated, O’Hara assumes a larger responsibility for the Spartans.
— James Yodice