FARMINGTON — The Shiprock Lady Chieftains are on pace for one of their best seasons in school history.
Unbeaten through 13 girls basketball games this season, Shiprock has reached the halfway point of the regular season at an electric pace. The Lady Chieftains have gone undefeated just one time in school history. That came in the state championship season of 1989 under legendary Shiprock coach Jerry Richardson.
"It has been a great start, and we are going to try to keep it up as long as we can," said Shiprock head coach Larenson Henderson, who is in his second season coaching the Lady Chiefs.
Shiprock has scored 890 points already this season. The Lady Chiefs will play just 13 more games during the regular season if they earn the No. 1 seed for the District 1-3A tournament as expected. If they continue to score at the pace they have opened the season with, Shiprock will finish the regular season with 1,780 points, which would rank fifth all-time in the New Mexico record books. A strong run in the state tournament could see Shiprock soar as high as second on that list, but it would be difficult for the Lady Chiefs to reach Kirtland Central's record of 2,156 points scored during the 1994-95 season.
Even with a perfect start, Shiprock is ranked just No. 4 in Class 3A by MaxPreps.com. Two-time defending state champ Lovington (9-3) is third while Hope Christian (8-0) and Portales (7-1) rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.
A big reason the Lady Chiefs are down at No. 4 is the strength of schedule played so far. Shiprock's opponents are a combined 39-51 this season. The Lady Chiefs' best win on paper came at Gallup in a 68-66 game in the season opener on Nov. 23.
"We need more competition, I guess. As of right now, we have struggled a bit here and there. We really need to see more difficult competition," said Shiprock senior guard Taylor Henderson, who won a state title with Kirtland Central in 2012 when her father, Larenson Henderson, was an assistant with the Lady Broncos. "It feels good to still be undefeated. It's a good thing, but we need to play tougher teams."
The road will certainly get more difficult for the Lady Chieftains in the next 10 days. Shiprock opens play in the Kirtland Central tournament today with potential matchups coming with Class 4A's No. 8 Grants (6-3) and No. 10 Belen (6-2).
Shiprock then travels to Albuquerque for the Hope Christian tournament Jan. 16 to 18. The Lady Chieftains open that tournament with Hot Springs and are likely to face defending Class 4A state champion Los Lunas (6-3) in the semifinal round. If Shiprock can win that game, it would likely face the Hope Christian Huskies, who beat Shiprock in the Class 3A semifinals in 2013 before falling to Lovington in the championship game.
"These next two weeks are going to prove where we are going to be come the end of the season," Larenson Henderson. "We would be excited to play Los Lunas and see how we can do."
Taylor Henderson, who leads the team with an average of 11.2 points per game, admitted she would love a chance to play Hope Christian before the state tournament in March.
"I want to see where their coaches put their players and see how good they are this year," she said. "To me, we can battle with them. We have the fight in us that we can do it. We can play with them."
Shiprock has a chance to be 16-0 heading into the Hope Christian tournament. If the Lady Chiefs could get out of Albuquerque unscathed, they would almost assure themselves a perfect regular season with only district games remaining against Bloomfield (3-6), Thoreau (10-2) and Wingate (6-8). Thoreau looks to be the stiffest 1-3A competition this season, but Shiprock has fared much better against some of the same opponents.
Shiprock has well-rounded scoring with seniors such as Ashley John and Shania Harry helping carry the load, along with Taylor Henderson. Freshman Tanisha Begay has been a solid addition to the lineup and averages 7.3 points per game.
Post players Shjantel and Shontai Grey have also given the Lady Chiefs a boost in offensive rebounding when layups aren't falling.
Top to bottom, Larenson Henderson is pleased with his roster and the way the team has come together through the season.
"One thing about our team is the second five comes in and plays just as hard as our starting five," he said. "We can then sub our first five girls back into the game, and they are revived. It really helps us get things going our way."
Although Shiprock hasn't been fully tested yet, Larenson Henderson has kept the team focused on playing strong from start to finish so they are ready when the tests inevitably come.
"We just have to keep working hard. Coach keeps getting on us every day and every practice about the small things, the important things," Taylor Henderson said.
Larenson Henderson said if the girls can maintain their intensity through March, his team won't give in to the nerves of playing in the state tournament.
"We want to let the girls' preparation take over. If they do that, the pressure will go away," he said. "It is special to start the way we have, but we are not letting the girls think about it. We work hard every day and tell them that hard work will take over when they get in the big games."John Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.