This year’s poster child is Volcano Vista.
“Being a 12 seed … (they) had to go through some stuff to get here,” Las Cruces coach William Benjamin said.
The Hawks (17-12) make their debut in a boys state basketball championship game Saturday when as they take on No. 2 Las Cruces (27-4) at 8 p.m. in the Pit.
No. 5 La Cueva (20-8) faces No. 7 Sandia (26-5) in the girls’ 6A final, set for 4 p.m.
BOYS: The Bulldawgs and Hawks met Dec. 3, with visiting Las Cruces winning 58-57. The Bulldawgs are 6-1 in games decided by five points or fewer and have won nine in a row overall.
“We got a chip on our shoulder, because nobody’s been talking about us all year,” Benjamin said.
The Hawks have won three playoff games by a combined eight points.
“As long as we believe, and play like we believe, the rest will take care of itself,” said senior forward David Cormier, who has been excellent in the last two rounds against Eldorado and Atrisco Heritage.
The similarity to Rio Rancho of last year is striking. The Rams last year lost five straight coming into state, then won a championship as an 11 seed. Volcano Vista dropped six out of seven before these playoffs.
Volcano Vista coach Greg Brown said all along – even before the playoff field was revealed – that he didn’t think the Hawks deserved a low seed, especially given their body of work. But ultimately, he said it didn’t much matter.
“We cared more about continuing our season,” said Brown, who won multiple championships with Albuquerque Academy as a player and one with Manzano as the Monarchs’ head coach in 2006. “It’s a very unique team we have.”
The Hawks do have multiple offensive options, including shooting guards Jorell Phillips and Andres Vigil, and sophomore forward Jalontae Gray. But it’s the versatile 6-foot-3 Cormier, who does more ball-handling than most players his size, that has Benjamin’s full attention.
“Hell of an athlete,” Benjamin said. “He’s tremendous.”
Cormier did not play in the teams’ first meeting three months ago.
Las Cruces last won a blue trophy four years ago. The Bulldawgs’ leading scorer is 6-foot-5 forward R.J. Brown, and junior point guard Markus Collins has been superb this week.
GIRLS: For the third straight year, a pair of Albuquerque schools will clash in the championship game.
La Cueva won two out of three from Sandia in the regular season, although the Matadors won the last meeting in the District 2-6A tournament final.
“It does mean a little more to play our rivals in the championship game,” La Cueva sophomore post Brynn Wade said. “I’m excited to play them again. We just have to put the (district championship) game out of our heads and come out fired up and confident.”
Neither lacks confidence, with both beating a pair of higher seeds this week. Sandia ousted No. 2 Carlsbad on Tuesday; La Cueva beat No. 1 Hobbs on Thursday.
“At this point, you are what you are,” said La Cueva coach Robert Perea, who has Bears in their second final in three seasons. “We’ll find out who wants it more.”
Sandia has won nine straight games.
“There is so much familiarity,” Matadors coach Lee Kettig said. “The will really will decide it.”
But Kettig is wary of the balanced Bears: “For us, La Cueva all year has been our most difficult matchup, because they can put five players out on the floor that can score.”
Perea said Friday that he didn’t know if standout senior guard and leading scorer Delaney Markham, who injured her knee against Hobbs, will be available today.
Sandia has a formidable starting five, led by senior guard/forward Cara Liggins, who averages 17 points and nine rebounds.
“Our nerves will be pretty high, but we always find a way to come together right before the game,” Liggins said. “The biggest thing is keeping our starters out of foul trouble.”