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Kings are happy to play at home for a change

Evan Marez, shooting, left, Jake Schmalzriedt, center, and Kipp Watson (4) play for the Albuquerque Kings of the NWBA. (Courtesy of The Albuquerque Kings)

Evan Marez, shooting, left, Jake Schmalzriedt, center, and Kipp Watson (4) play for the Albuquerque Kings of the NWBA. (Courtesy of The Albuquerque Kings)

The Albuquerque Kings usually have to pack their bags and hit the road to find competition.

But the wheelchair basketball team will be spending time at home this weekend, trying to improve its national status with games at Johnson Gym.

The Kings are a championship-level member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and are ranked 10th out of more than 30 teams around the country.

The top 16 teams qualify for the national tournament in Louisville, Ky., in April.

But the more immediate task is this weekend’s Duke City Classic that features the University of Arizona, the Phoenix Banner Suns, the Las Vegas Silver Bandits, the Oklahoma City Chargers/Thunder and the Denver Rolling Nuggets.

“Hopefully we’ll get a boost and support from the community,” said Melanie Brionez, who is in her first year as coach of the Kings. “We want to win – that’s always our goal. Hopefully with the support behind them, that will give them that extra boost.”

The Kings have a 12-player roster that includes a couple of women and is of various ages.

Brionez says she relies on the leadership of Jake Schmalzriedt and Randy Jaramillo.

“Jake, he’s our quote-unquote captain,” Brionez said. “The team looks to him to be the strong leader, not so much vocally, but by example. He’s been doing great things to keep the program going.

“Randy, he’s my silent leader. He tries to push the team. He motivates and encourages. He’s the go-to guy when the team needs help.”

Brionez, who played basketball at Del Norte High School and was a walk-on at New Mexico State, was the 2006 George Maloof Scholarship winner.

A friend of Brionez’s coached the team the past few years, but he had other obligations and could no longer devote the time. He suggested Brionez to the team and a marriage was formed.

“I think they have a lot of potential,” Brionez said. “They’ve competed against the top five teams and have either beaten them or come within a couple of points of them.”

Brionez said she gets great enjoyment out of coaching the Kings.

“I’ve always loved basketball, and this is another way I get to be part of it,” she said.

One of Brionez’s tasks is to balance her lineup.

The NWBA classifies each player according to their disability level – assigning them between one and four points according to the severity of their condition. Players with more severe disabilities are given one point. Teams can have players totaling only 12 points on the floor at the same time.

The NWBA, which ranks teams every month, has various team category levels, as well. The Kings, in the championship class, play at the highest level.

This is the fourth Duke City Classic, but logistics prevented it from happening last year. So the Kings haven’t had a home game in a couple of years.

Saturday’s games begin at 8:30 a.m., with Albuquerque scheduled to play fourth-ranked Arizona at 10 a.m. and Las Vegas at 4 p.m. On Sunday, the Kings play No. 7 Phoenix at 8:30 a.m. and Oklahoma City at 11:30 a.m.

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