.......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... ..........SANTA FE, N.M. — When one thinks about boys hoops in the north, it usually comes down to breakneck basketball versus height, especially in Class 5A.
For Española Valley, coach Richard Martinez is expecting his Sundevils to be right there in the Pit on the final weekend of the season.
“We expect to play for the state championship,” Martinez said. “Everybody looks at things and says things, but the bottom line is everybody is seeking one thing, and that’s the state championship.”
But while many teams and coaches can chalk that up as the ultimate, the Sundevils are one of the few programs where that is a legitimate expectation.
“The Sundevils will be a force,” Martinez said. “We’re small, but we’ll pack a punch. We’re like (Joe) Frazier. We’re short but when we throw a punch, you’ll never see the punch coming.”
Española’s size essentially boils down to 6-foot, 3-inch junior post Joseph Trujillo, Martinez said.
But the Sundevils are packed with plenty of experience, the coach said, with seven of the top eight players returning from the squad that went 15-12 and reached the state tournament last season.
In addition to Trujillo, Española will be counting on 5-7 senior shooting guard Jerad Garduño and 5-9 senior wing Marcos Flores.
“The biggest strength we have is our speed,” Martinez said. “This is the fastest team I’ve ever had. And experience. These guys have been with me a long time.”
But the team is going to have to play experienced, he said.
“I think we have to play like a veteran team,” Martinez said. “We have to make good decisions on the court. I think our players are expecting to step up, they have to step up.”
Up the hill, Los Alamos has a full-fledged rebuilding project with just one returning starter back and just three players with varsity experience. But after going 2-24 last season, there’s nowhere to go but up.
That returning starter, Scott Gasway, however, is a strong building block. A 5-11, senior small forward, Gasway is working to get his basketball brain, legs and hands engaged, Hilltoppers coach Mike Kluk said of Gasway’s return to the court from the gridiron. “He is a hustler and leads by example.”
The two other returning letter winners, 6-1 sophomore forward Cottrell Fox and 6-0 freshman small forward Jack Stewart, provide a modicum of size and experience.
“Our overall height and length is much better this season than the last few seasons,” Kluk said. “So we will be more competitive inside. We have young guards sturdy enough to make sure we get into our offenses so we have a chance for touches inside. The guards can knock down shots, also. But with our youth, we have players who are really hungry to get better and win games. As a group, they listen very well.”
There obviously will be a learning curve with the young players, but there’s a strong chance for the Hilltoppers to improve quickly.
“We have a lot to work on,” Kluk said. “Several of our players will struggle early to keep up with the varsity speed of play and physical play. That will come with more games under their belt. We mostly need to work on better execution in the half-court offense and understanding what we are trying to accomplish in our offenses.
“Once we get better at execution, I think we’ll get plenty of quality shots. We just need to make good use of those chances. So we need to become more confident shooters.”
It’s just going to be a matter of getting better as the season progresses, he said.
“The expectations for the season are to improve to the point where we will be ready by district play to compete for the district title,” Kluk said. “We are not going to put too much emphasis on wins and losses early in the season. Just to improve in some area every game and keep building.”
Capital went 10-17 last season, but showed improvement as the season progressed, going 5-3 in district behind a veteran group that included seven seniors.
Leading scorer Eric Coca (5-10, Jr., G) returns after averaging nine points and two assists per game.
Fellow juniors Augustine Larranaga (5-11, G) and Kevin Brown (5-9, G) also saw minutes last season.
“Our expectations are just to improve,” said coach Ben Gomez. “We have to learn the systems, help on defense and be efficient on offense.”
With virtually no size, the Jaguars will be a perimeter-oriented team.
“We have some pretty good speed and some pretty quickness,” he said. “We have to create a lot of havoc on defense with our speed and quickness and we can’t expect to give up the ball and be successful.”