FARMINGTON — Heading into this season, one question dominates the conversation about District 1-4A boys basketball.
Who is going to stop Christian Mackey?
Mackey, a 6-foot-5-inch, 260-pound center for Kirtland Central, will be one of the most dominant players in all of Class 4A this season. With the ability to average 20 points and 15 rebounds a game, Mackey has the Broncos ranked No. 5 in the NMPreps.com preseason poll. The next closest 1-4A team is Piedra Vista, which comes in at No. 16.
"One-on-one, it is tough for any player to handle Mackey, especially height-wise this year in our district because I don't know that anyone has a whole lot of height," said Kirtland Central head coach John Zecca.
Mackey, a senior, was a force last year in his second varsity season. Still, Mackey wasn't enough to get the Broncos into the state tournament as the team finished 11-16 overall and third in the district. Poor guard play limited what Kirtland Central was able to do much of last season.
Because so many players from last year's Farmington High and Piedra Vista squads graduated, local coaches said Kirtland Central is the preseason favorite because of their returning experience.
"With Mackey back, Kirtland is the favorite, but Mackey needs two guards to play well for him or else they are going to struggle again," said Piedra Vista head coach Adam Huff.
Zecca is confident he has the guards to help Mackey this season with players such as Bud Willie, Reese Foutz, Wilbert Smith, Seldon Watson and Elijah Charles all returning from last year's squad.
"As far as experience, we have a lot coming back. Bud Willie was our second-leading scorer last year, and he has done a lot of things to expand his game to be able to step outside and shoot some and not just hang out on the baseline. He has become versatile," Zecca said. "Foutz has another year of experience that will really help him, too. He is getting to the basket and going strong to the hole. I know Wilbert Smith had a down year shooting the ball last year, but we expect him to rebound from that this season."
Zecca called Watson a good all-around player who can pull up for outside shots or drive to the rim. He expects Charles to also do a lot of the ball handling this year.
"Last year, our problem was lack of confidence in our guards. Mackey is a beast and will get his no matter what, but we are hoping all of the guys make a difference this year," Zecca said.
This season, Zecca also has a surprise sophomore -- who he did not want to name -- he hopes to hide from area coaches as long as he can.
Although the rest of the state sees Kirtland Central as an easy favorite to win the district, all four coaches in 1-4A said they expect another close fight for the district title.
"It seems like every year people think one team will stand above the rest, and it always turns into a battle," Zecca said. "Last year, people thought PV could run away with it, and Farmington came out of nowhere to win it. This year, people look at us as the favorite, but I am not sure I see it that way. Farmington and PV may be inexperienced, but they have some good young basketball players that are very scrappy and play hard. It should be interesting once again."
Coach: Paul Corley, second season
Last year's finish: 15-13 overall, District 1-4A champs, lost in first round of state.
Key returners: Kyle Reynolds
New additions: Victor Lopez, Max Pinon, Alex Whitely and Garrett Farmer
Season Outlook: "I think this group is going to be really adaptable to different styles of play. We lost a lot of kids last year, but we gained depth and will be able to use different combinations of lineups depending on who we play. We will still be up-tempo with our offense and try to push the ball, and the biggest thing will be our full-court and half-court press defense. The kids are catching on real quick to what we want done. There is a big learning curve from junior varsity to varsity, and that is what our kids will have to learn in the early games. We know Kirtland has an edge with (Christian) Mackey, but we know PV will be tough again, and I know Coach (Tony DiNallo) will do well with the Aztec guys. We look for it to be a wide open race in the district. We want to defend home court and hopefully sneak a few wins on the road." -- Paul Corley
Coach: Adam Huff, second season
Last year's finish: 15-15 overall, District 1-4A runner-up, lost in first round of state.
Key returners: Troy Dixon, Isaiah Valdez and Orion Kaminky
New additions: Tyler Edwards
Season Outlook: "The second year has been easier as a coach because the kids now know what to expect. It should be easier for us to get up and down the floor in transition, and we have done some things with our man defense to try to force more pressure. We also have a new 6-foot-7-inch sophomore Tyler Edwards, so we might try to pound the ball inside more this year. I don't think we will put too much pressure on the sophomore to guard (Christian) Mackey because Isaiah Valdez can take the brunt of Mackey. He was one of the only guys in the state who did a good job with Mackey last year, holding him to 15 points and 10 rebounds, which is holding Mackey down. (Troy) Dixon has been our guy all offseason leading the rest of the boys. We are leaning on him as a three-year varsity guy. (Orion) Kaminky is one of the fastest guys I have seen. If he can hit free throws, he is going to be a big help. Everyone in the district lost so much from last year that I think there will be a lot of parity. I think the whole state in 4A is pretty wide open. Albuquerque Academy entered the season No. 1 and lost by 16 to Gallup already. Los Lunas could be a team to beat, and we go see them this year. With Kirtland being No. 5, I think it shows how wide open it is. Either that is way too high for Kirtland, or there is nobody else. If we win a few early games, we will be right in it." -- Adam Huff
Coach: Tony DiNallo, first season
Last year's finish: 10-16 overall, last place in District 1-4A
Key returners: Troy Choman, Eli King and Alvin Harvey
New additions: Nick Weaver, Ryneal Lewis-Adams, Juwan Charley, Preston Daugherty, Brenden Huntsman, Braden Goimarac, Dylan Crane and Dylan Stinson
Season Outlook: "We got a dozen guys working real hard right now. Of the younger guys, Charley, Weaver, Crane, Huntsman and Daugherty are all going to play a lot. In our first game against Miyamura, we only had four days of practice, and we put something together we could at least get on the floor with. That proved to be a little sophisticated, maybe. We are going to go and change our offense to more of a passing-game and stay with a pressure, man defense. The kids are working real hard on that defense. The kids have good basketball instincts, and we are trying to build on those. We have a bunch of coaches, which has been good because we have enough coaches to really work the guys hard and teach them correct habits so they all become instincts. I think we will surprise people later on." -- Tony DiNalloJohn Livingston can be reached at email@example.com; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.