Just days after practice officially started Nov. 20, the high school basketball season tipped off this week for Belen, Los Lunas and Valencia.
In boys’ hoops, LLHS expects to make an extensive postseason run, BHS will try to overcome a lack of size, while VHS needs an inexperienced roster to come through.
Los Lunas Tigers
The Los Lunas boys’ basketball team may be a bit like a puzzle for coach Travis Julian. What pieces fit best around Jalin Holland, one of the most highly recruited players in the country?
Holland, a 6-foot, 5-inches junior guard, led the Tigers’ to the semifinals of the 5A state tournament last season, but more help may be needed if LLHS will lift the blue trophy in the Pit next March.
“We’ve got to be better around him,” said Julian. “We do have weapons,” including Isaiah Juarez, Rex Kinsey, Logan Tafoya and Isaiah Aragon, all seniors.
“We have new guys who can definitely fill the void,” Holland said about losing Ezra Guest and Geleio Griego to graduation.
Julian tends to agree.
“I feel we’ve improved our shooting, ball handling, improved overall as players,” Julian said.
That includes Holland, who has spent plenty of time playing club ball around the country.
“He’s moving better. He looks more athletic on the floor,” Julian noted about the returning Metro Player of the Year.
With Holland playing mostly on the perimeter, Los Lunas (25-7) will again be challenged to match up against taller teams inside.
“We work around that,” Holland said. “We use our guards as our offense.”
Holland admits there is pressure.
“A lot of pressure. I’m just going to try to do whatever it takes to make the team win.”
For Julian, it comes with the job description. “There’s always pressure to put out a quality product and make the community proud.”
LLHS went on the road Tuesday and handled Piedra Vista 55-29 in the season opener.
Former Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden made popular the phrase “You can’t teach height.” Perhaps, “You can’t teach speed,” is also accurate. Because of a dearth of size, the Belen Eagles boys’ basketball team will live and die with the latter.
“We have no size,” said BHS coach Donald Marquez, adding, “so we’re really going to have to run up and down. We’re going to have to shoot.”
Thankfully for Marquez, the Eagles have those categories covered, with Jordi Rojo and Damian Avila, both 5-foot, 8-inches, and Jasode Harris, the giant of the group at 5-foot,10-inches.
“It’s going to be nice getting up and down,” said Rojo, who was the Eagles’ leading scorer last season at 13.1 points per game and is one of only three seniors on the team. “We’re young and inexperienced, but we work hard at practice every day. This team is skilled.”
Marquez said early signs are positive after recently defeating Pojoaque and Santa Fe Indian School in scrimmages, while almost knocking off Hope.
“We look much better than last year,” in which the Eagles’ struggled to a 4-23 record.
Marquez will also depend on what he calls a “strong bench — 10 deep.”
Ultimately, with the season tipoff set for Thursday at home against Moriarty, success will likely depend on the little guy’s pressuring and pushing the ball.
“We want to muddy up the game as much as possible,” is how Marquez puts it. “We’re going to be in your face. We have to be.”
After spending the summer in Austria competing in the United World Games, Valencia’s Damian Estrada should have no trouble making road trips to places like Artesia, Gallup and Las Cruces.
However, with the graduation of Ali Abdullah, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, the schedule won’t be easy for VHS, which reached the first round of the state playoffs last season.
“It’s going to be a little challenging but we’re going to get it done this year,” said Estrada, a 6-foot, 2-inch senior guard. “I feel we have a bunch of ‘dogs’ on this team. We have a lot of hustlers, kids who have a lot of grit to them.”
That’s exactly what coach Jesse Hathoot wants to hear.
“We’ve really tried to focus on becoming a tougher team,” Hathoot shared. “Our lack of toughness my first two years here kept us from winning some games late.”
Despite a roster loaded with freshmen and sophomores, “we’ll be better than what people expect us to be on paper,” Hathoot predicts. He says Estrada is one of the best in the state and freshman Carin Bustillos has a chance to be a “special player.”
VHS (13-16) will also rely on Jordan Giron, a sophomore “sniper,” while Diego Baeza, sophomore, adds beef on the inside.
“I can’t stress enough how happy I am with our off season,” Hathoot said. “These kids have really bought into putting in the time.”
The Jaguars opened the season in impressive fashion Monday at home with a 60-20 victory over Deming. Estrada scored 16 points, while Bustillos added 14 points and eight rebounds.