Three Valencia County teams were selected by the New Mexico Activities Association for the state basketball championship, which starts this weekend.
The Los Lunas Tigers were named to the 5A boys championship, while the Valencia Jaguars will be represented in both the boys and girls 4A tournaments.
Los Lunas boys basketball
The Los Lunas Tigers were rewarded for a district regular season and tournament championship with a third seed in the boys 5A State Basketball Championship.
LLHS (23-6) will play a first round game against No. 14 Las Cruces (16-11) at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Tigers’ gym.
“I’m very happy with the seeding we got,” said head coach Travis Julian, who quickly added, “Las Cruces is going to be a challenge.”
That challenge starts with 6-foot, 9-inches tall senior Caleb Carr, who Julian calls, “A big monster in the middle. We’ll just have to throw bodies at him and hope for the best.”
Julian says the Bulldawgs are not a one-man team.
“They’ve got a couple of shooters around him who are very experienced,” he said. “We’re going to have our hands full.”
This will be a rematch of a Dec. 13 game, won by Los Lunas, 60-44, on the Bulldawgs home court. Los Lunas senior guard Geleio Griego is optimistic.
“We kind of match up good against them,” Griego said. “I think the bracket came out pretty good. I’m excited.”
The Tigers have nearly a full week to get ready for Las Cruces, which Julian calls “the longest week in basketball.” After facing “a little bump in the road” earlier this season, Los Lunas defeated over a six-day-period all three teams it had lost to in district play.
“It was kind of a redemption tour,” Julian said. “That was huge for us. A big builder for our confidence.”
Griego hopes to keep that redemption tour going.
“I’ve never played in the Pit (for a state tournament game) myself. None of us has,” Griego said. A Pit game will happen if the Tigers win Saturday. “I want to go all the way. I think we can.”
Valencia girls basketball
It may be a hostile environment when the VHS girls walk into the Silver High School gym Friday night, but for Jaguars’ coach Micaela Medina, “It feels like a homecoming for me. I lived out there for over 10 years.”
Medina attended Western New Mexico in Silver City and coached at nearby Cobre High School.
“I feel I have that chip on my shoulder,” she said. “I want to get that ‘W’ in the Silver City gym.”
The Jaguar players weren’t quite as excited about the pairing.
“At first, all of us were pretty bummed. Silver City is far,” said junior guard Azalia Malizia. “But once we started talking to coach and seeing where we’re at (in the bracket), it’s a good spot to be at.”
This appears to be one of the more competitive first round match ups between 10th seeded Valencia (18-10) and No. 7 Silver (17-8.) The Fighting Colts had won 11 straight games before losing to Deming in the district tournament championship.
Both teams like to pressure the ball and get up and down the floor, which could be an advantage for the Jaguars.
“I think we’ll be able to easily go past their defense. They’re not as strong on their defensive side,” Malizia believes.
Silver has a roster full of “scrappy” freshmen, according to Medina.
“We definitely have to continue the pressure defense that we’re kind of known for and hopefully force a lot of turnovers,” the coach said. “We’re just excited to go out and compete in the state tournament and hopefully make a run.”
Malizia believes it is key to be ready from the opening tip. “We want to make sure the girls are in the right mindset because it’s not a joking matter.”
Valencia boys basketball
Almost exactly one year ago after failing to qualify for the state tournament, the Jaguars held a team meeting.
“We talked about how that needs to be different” this year,” said coach Jesse Hathoot. “And here we are after a lot of work.”
Where the Jaguars are is on the way to Artesia (18-9) to face on Saturday the fourth-seeded Bulldogs, who went undefeated in district play. VHS (13-15) is 13th seeded, and is confident now after a mid-season slump in which the Jags lost seven of 10 games.
“We’re all playing together now,” said senior Fernando Enriquez. “We’re all starting to play together now, not as a group of individuals.”
The two teams are not strangers. Artesia handed the Jaguars a 38-36 home loss, one in a string of close setbacks in December.
“We’ve added some things, taken some things out, adjusted,” since that first showdown, Hathoot said. “Both teams are a lot better, as we should be.”
The Bulldogs didn’t have a full complement of players until well into the season after winning the 4A state football championship,
Artesia features Nick Sanchez, who Hathoot calls “One of the top point guards in the state regardless of class. He can score in different ways. He does everything really, really well.”
Still, Valencia is bringing plenty of enthusiasm to Artesia.
“It’s a great thing,” Enriquez said of being in the postseason. “We’ve got a lot of talent on this team that’s for sure. We got there, now we just have to finish it. Everybody is locking in, realizing it’s a big moment.”
And as Hathoot says, “Anything can happen in March.”
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.