FARMINGTON — The District 1-4A boys' basketball season tips off tonight, and all the teams in the district appear to be chasing the Kirtland Central Broncos.
Kirtland Central (13-5) enters tonight's game against Farmington High ranked No. 4 in Class 4A by MaxPreps.com. The Broncos boast the best player in the district in 6-foot-5-inch, 260-pound senior center Christian Mackey. They also have impressive wins against No. 2 Los Lunas and No. 9 Gallup and regional wins against Farmington and Shiprock.
But being the favorites to win the district puts a target on the backs of the Broncos.
"We have had a pretty good pre-district season with some big wins, and we do have a guy like Mackey so people are going to be gunning for us," said Kirtland Central head coach John Zecca. "I still wouldn't call us the favorites, but people probably see us that way."
Much of the attention of the district will be on Mackey. Piedra Vista head coach Adam Huff said Mackey may even be the best player in all of 4A. But Zecca knows it will come down to the players surrounding Mackey if the team wants to have real success the rest of the season. Look for players such as Bernel Miller, Wilbert Smith, Reese Foutz and Seldon Watson to be among the players who step up in big moments for the Broncos.
"When we get balanced scoring, we tend to do pretty well. When we rely on (Mackey), that is when we don't do that well," Zecca said. "If we can get some balance offensively, I think we will be pretty tough."
If the Broncos play the way the rest of the state expects them to, it appears to be a race for second in 1-4A with No. 13 Farmington and No. 16 Piedra Vista jockeying for playoff positioning.
Farmington (10-10) is led by point guard Alex Whiteley, who has emerged as the best player in 1-4A outside of Mackey. The Scorpions gained momentum with a 2-1 showing at the Poe Corn Invitational in Roswell after Christmas before going 7-2 so far in January. The Scorps also have a notable win against No. 7 Albuquerque Academy, and that came before players returned following the football season.
"Whiteley has really turned into the top point guard in our district. He and the rest of the guys are learning to play smart basketball. He knows when to score, and he is a relentless defender," said FHS head coach Paul Corley. "We are feeling really good about ourselves considering how we started 1-8."
The Scorps are allowing fewer than 37 points per game to opponents throughout their 7-2 stretch. Their only two losses have both come to No. 3-ranked St. Pius X, when they lost by a combined 10 points.
"Our defense is carrying us. At times, we struggle offensively, but the defense is keeping us in games," Corley said. "The kids have sold out to play the defense we want, and they are learning to make adjustments mid-game when we need them to."
Piedra Vista (11-8) started the season 4-1 before losing five of their next six games. Huff is happy with the way his team has rallied in the new year, especially with a solid win against Gallup.
"We have definitely had our ups and downs. Our inexperience showed at times, but our guys have turned it around," Huff said. "We have a better record going into district than we did this time last year, and we have placed ourselves with a similar record to a lot of the teams in the middle of the pack in 4A."
Huff has been impressed with his team's maturation and believes the battles between his point guard, Troy Dixon, and Farmington's Whiteley will make for must-see basketball.
"Alonzo Araiza and Dillon Mason are definitely a couple of guys who have stepped up and have played well. We have been trying to find compliments for Dixon and Isaiah Valdez. There were some growing pains, but Dixon is playing lights out right now, and the guys are coming together," Huff said.
The team with the most to prove is Aztec. The Tigers (8-11) played just three games against 4A competition during their non-district schedule, losing twice to Miyamura and once to Bernalillo. Those losses and mixed results against 2A, 3A and smaller Colorado teams have led the Tigers to a No. 25 ranking out of 26 teams in Class 4A.
"We started with 10 games on the road. Who else had to do that. I think the classification stuff works in football, but it doesn't matter in basketball," DiNallo said. "New Mexico is a basketball state. Desert Academy is only 1A, but they are tough as a boot. I think our schedule was fine. We played quality schools, and we did it on the road. That will have us ready for road games in district."
The Tigers have a couple of solid big men in Nick Weaver and Troy Choman, as well as quality athletes in Eli King, Juwan Charley, Alvin Harvey and Ryneal Lewis-Adams. Getting shots to fall is the biggest key for Aztec.
"We feel like we have good matchups against all the district teams. Mackey is special, but our bigs are looking forward to the challenge," DiNallo said. "I am anxious to see how we do. There is balance around the district. I hope teams are taking us lightly, but they won't be able to once they get on the court with us."
Aztec opens the district schedule at home against Piedra Vista. Kirtland Central will play at Farmington High in the other district opener. Every coach in 1-4A agrees taking care of home court will be the most important step to contending for a district banner.
"Any time you can get a win on the road in district, it is big. You don't expect to win them all, but if you can steal a few here and there and protect home court, you will be sitting pretty well at the end of the district season," Zecca said.John Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.