FARMINGTON – The Farmington, Aztec and Piedra Vista girls basketball teams will be trying to catch Gallup in District 1-5A this season.
Gallup tasted defeat only three times during the 2014-15 season, reaching the 5A final, where the Lady Bengals fell to Los Lunas.
Six seniors are gone from that team, including second-team all-state selections Rachelle Blackgoat and Kristen Quigley. But the Lady Bengals will return one of the state’s best players, 6-foot-1 senior Ni’asia NcIntosh, who earned first-team all-state honors the last two seasons.
Farmington enters 2015-16 after finishing second in the district last season and earning the No. 8 seed in the 5A state tournament, where the Lady Scorpions lost to No. 9 Belen 54-48.
FHS will return the vast majority of last year’s production, including the team’s top five leading scorers and rebounders.
“We definitely have a good group coming back,” Farmington head coach Danny Secrest said. “That’s a huge thing for us, the experience, and I hope the experience that the older girls have kind of carries over, and they can help the younger girls on the team.”
Secrest said he doesn’t have any one player in mind to take over as a leader. Instead, he hopes the entire group of upperclassmen comes together to share the responsibility.
Secrest said one of the biggest things the team has been working on during the preseason has been getting the older and younger girls comfortable playing with each other.
Farmington will open the season on Tuesday, hosting Grants.The Lady Scorps will face a challenging nondistrict schedule to help get them ready for the daunting challenge presented by Gallup.
“We definitely have some good games. We’re going to Clovis, and we have Española Valley back on the schedule, and I think the nondistrict teams in the area, Shiprock and Kirtland Central, playing those teams who are at the top of the 4A will help us in our district,” Secrest said. “I think Gallup is the favorite again, but I think we’re going to be able to really challenge and play with them this year.”
Aztec made major improvements a year ago under second-year head coach Robert McCaskill. The Lady Tigers finished last season 11-17, six wins better than the previous season, placing third in the district. Aztec made the state tournament as the 15th seed and lost to No. 2 Los Lunas 62-35 in the first round.
Entering this season, McCaskill said the Lady Tigers are getting better, and after losing only one senior from last year’s team, they'll have needed varsity experience.
“The experience will help them calm down and focus on the little things we need to do,” McCaskill said.
Leading the Lady Tigers this season will be senior Elana Kresl, junior Makayla McCaskill and sophomore Myra McCaskill. All three players were starters for Aztec last season.
The Lady Tigers will face a tough schedule in the early part of the season to prepare them for District 1-5A.
“We have a really strong schedule. We’re going to Capital's and Artesia’s tournaments. And we’re going out to California for a tournament right after Christmas,” McCaskill said.
The trip to the West Coast is a change for the Lady Tigers, who haven’t gone to California in recent years. McCaskill said the decision to take the team to the tournament was a move to help develop the program by playing top-level competition outside of New Mexico.
“We felt like it was time to branch out and test ourselves more to help get us ready for our district,” McCaskill said.
PV enters 2015-16 after going 13-17 overall and finishing fourth in the district last year. The Lady Panthers cracked the state tournament field, but fell 80-41 to top-seeded Gallup in the first round.
“They’re looking good,” PV head coach Joe Reed said of his team. “Everyone is healthy. We just have a lot of youth.”
The Lady Panthers graduated seven players from last year’s team, but they’ll return a dynamic scorer in senior Nykki Benally.
“Nykki has improved a lot during the summer, and now she’s looking to get her teammates involved more,” Reed said. “Her leadership in practice has been great.”
Reed will also be looking to freshman point guard Alexis Long to lead the Lady Panther offense.
Junior Elli Wright and senior Autumn Begay will be major contributors on the boards with their size and athleticism.
Begay hasn’t played basketball since her freshman year, but Reed had been trying to get the standout volleyball and softball player back on the court since she left the team.
“I stayed on Autumn for two years. Every day, I’d pass her in the halls and try to get her to play again,” Reed said.
This season, the Lady Panthers will look to push the tempo with a full-court press. Running that defense should not only help PV's scoring by creating turnovers, but will also get the team ready for the style of play it will see in the district.
“We want to use the press more because when the girls are going up against a press every day in practice, it will help get them ready and used to the pressure that they’ll face when we play Gallup,” Reed said.
Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648.