FARMINGTON — More than eight months after coming one game short of the state championship, the Shiprock Chieftains have returned to the basketball court with the goal of returning to The Pit in Albuquerque.
The Chieftains have an experienced squad back from last year's team. Led by senior captains Hiram Gleason and Justin Begay, Shiprock has nine upperclassmen who hope to push the team deep into the state tournament once more.
"It is all about team building and getting to the state tournament," said third-year head coach Chester H. Atcitty Jr. "It takes five guys on the floor to be successful out there. The guys all just have to learn to play together, and we will get there."
Shiprock opened the season Tuesday night with a 79-69 win on the road in Blanding, Utah, against San Juan High.
Atcitty has a lot of faith in Begay, Gleason and Darryle Nelson, three talented guards, to run the offense this season.
"Any one of those two guys could go off any given night. They are a good bunch of kids," Atcitty said. "We want to be able to run when we can, and those guys allow us to do that. We just have to have team cohesion. If they can control the ball and get inside help with the big guys, it will turn things around."
Shiprock has a few solid post players this season in Jeremiah Johnson, Lemuel Begay, Andre Joe and Ryan Benally. All four are at least 6-foot-1-inch forwards, with Johnson coming in at 6-foot-4.
"It is going to vary from night to night to see what style we play and our average size in our lineup. If we want to slow down, we can go to the big guys," Atcitty said. "We want to be in control of the temp of every game."
Atcitty believes defense and rebounding will be the biggest factors in Shiprock's success this season.
"If we control the ball and rebound, that will be the whole key. The guys have to be hungry to rebound," he said.
Shiprock is ranked No. 7 in the NMPreps.com preseason poll. Wingate comes in at No. 14, and Bloomfield is No. 15. The Chieftains are the favorite to win District 1-3A.
"Shiprock is going to be solid with Gleason and (Justin) Begay back. They always know how to play," said Bloomfield head coach Devon Manning. "Wingate is tough, too."
Defending state champion Hope Christian, which beat Shiprock in the state semifinals last season, is the preseason No. 1 team in Class 3A with state runner-up St. Michael's coming in at No. 2.
"All those private prep schools are the cream of the crop. Every year, it is different playing those teams. If we can turn things around against those teams, we will be ecstatic," Atcitty said.
Coach: Devon Manning, second season
Last year's finish: 11-18 overall, District 1-3A runner-up, lost in first round of state.
Key returners: Raymundo Sanchez, Tyler Barker and Damian Duran
New additions: Tyler Benally, Malachi Pablo and Joseph DeHerrera
Season outlook: "We are looking OK, but we really just got the football guys out for the first time this week. We are kind of starting from square one again to see where we are now that we have those guys. We had Ryan Johnson returning this year, but he broke his leg during football. If we can get him back, it won't be until at least late January. It would be a great mid-season boost to get him back because he brings a lot to the team with rebounding, and he puts the ball in the basket. He scores quietly, but a lot of times you see him with 16 or 17 points in games last year. We will cross that bridge when we get there, if we get him back. We are going to be young with juniors and sophomores. Tyler Barker and Ray Sanchez are two returning starters we need to lead the young group and show them the ropes. We just want to give ourselves a chance to get a good seed in state, and we have to start earning a good seed from the first game to the very last game. We need to try and get as many wins as possible and improve along the way."John Livingston can be reached at email@example.com; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.