James Barron: Small schools should see plenty of hardwood success

Nov. 29—Take a deep breath, close your eyes and jump back into the deep end of the pool.

Football season concluded Saturday, but the winter season wasted no time in beckoning its fans.

In fact, not more than an hour after Ruidoso claimed its second Class 3A trophy in football, Capital boys basketball debuted its 2022-23 season. There is no rest for the weary — especially the multisport athletes who threw off their football cleats and slid on their basketball shoes.

This upcoming season is full of promise — if you're one of the little guys. Santa Fe High boys and girls will be solid and should challenge for District 5-5A titles, but don't expect a deep run this year. Across town, the Capital boys (who lost to an up-and-coming Las Cruces Organ Mountain team 61-48 Saturday) and the girls are in a state of flux.

Normal standby Española Valley is transitioning to a new boys coach (Joey Trujillo), while the girls team is a mix of unproven youth and seniors.

So that leaves Classes 3A and 2A, and there are a treasure trove of storylines to satiate a basketball fan's appetite. Here's a sampling of a few of them:

Cardinals-Horsemen II?

Where we left the 2021-22 season is where we pick up in November. On paper, Las Vegas Robertson and St. Michael's boys look to be the teams to beat in 3A. Both programs lost their best players (Mathew Gonzales for the Cardinals, Devin Flores for the Horsemen), but they have plenty of returning veterans to offset their absences.

Senior Adam Montoya is a tall (6-foot-2), lanky point guard who can attack the rim and shoot, while Sabiani Rios takes on a guard role after playing in the post last year. Freshman Donevan Ricker could be a breakout player.

Robertson saw its Gonzales replacement, Mateo Contreras, injure his leg during in football, and he might be done for the season. The Cardinals will rely on a trio of seniors — Bodie Schlinger, Kenneth Montoya and Ace Gonzalez — to pick up the slack.

And what is a Robertson season without a Gonzales? Mathew is gone, but twin brothers Jesse James and Nathaniel remain to wreak havoc.

If Robertson can overcome the loss of Contreras, we could see a 3A championship rematch in The Pit in March.

Can the Lady Braves take the next step?

Santa Fe Indian School has played for the 3A girls title twice over the past four seasons. With a familiar face in Teri Morrison taking over as head coach, can the Lady Braves bring home its first blue trophy since 2011?

Even though SFIS lost the inside-out duo of Jordan Torres and Cameron Conners to graduation, this year's team is senior-loaded. Madisen Valdez slides into the point guard spot and 5-6 guard Jalen Abeyta provides some size in the backcourt. The frontcourt is underclassmen heavy with sophomore Emma Lewis and freshman Kadence Riley. If Morrison can find the right mix, SFIS could find itself back in the championship game.

Of course, the first step is to get that 800-pound gorilla off its back and beat District 2-3A foe Las Vegas Robertson. But that's another storyline to explore later in the year.

Could 2A boys become an all-North battle?

The Pecos Panthers will carry state championship expectations with them for the sixth time in the past seven seasons, but the goal is to turn last year's red runner-up trophy to blue. With nine seniors returning, there is no reason to think Pecos won't be back in the title game.

But could its opponent come from Santa Fe? The dark horse candidate could be Academy for Technology and the Classics. The Phoenix are not trying to fly under the radar, as they are already 2-0 with dominating wins over Questa (73-13) and Mora (63-35).

Junior Julian Bernardino might be the best small-school player in the North, as the 6-2 wing can shoot and attack the rim with ferocity. Add to that junior guard Jordan Apodaca and eighth grader Cannon Cole (better known in his household as the son of Santa Fe High head boys coach Zack Cole), and the Phoenix have a trio of scorers to give opponents fits.

How serious is ATC about competing this year? It will take part in Belen's Hub City Invitational, facing 4A stalwart Albuquerque Del Norte in the opening round.

Mark Jan. 21 on your calendar: The Phoenix head to Louis G. Sanchez Memorial Gymnasium to play the Panthers, who have not lost at home since 2016.

At best, you will see a preview of the 2A championship. At worst, you'll see an entertaining game against two of the best teams in Northern New Mexico.

Just remember, think small when mapping your tour of basketball games to watch.

Contact James Barron at jbarron@sfnewmexican.com.