Loaded Shiprock girls team eyeing a state title

Kirtland, Bloomfield ready to build on last year's state playoff runs

Jake Newby

FARMINGTON – Yet another state title run may be on the horizon for the Shiprock girls basketball team.

Shiprock's Tanisha Begay dribbles the ball down court against Kirtland Central on Feb. 17 at the Chieftain Pit in Shiprock.

The Lady Chieftains have been the juggernauts of District 1-4A for most of this decade, making it all the way to the 4A state championship game in 2014, 2011 and 2010. They have not lost a game to a district foe since Kirtland Central beat them for the state title five years ago.

Last year’s top two scorers in the district – Tanisha Begay and Paige Dale – are only juniors and should make sure Shiprock is still playing well into March this season.

“We’ve got a lot of speed, we have a lot of good shooters and a lot of good penetrators,” Shiprock coach Larenson Henderson. “We move the ball well. That’s one thing I love about this team is they’re unselfish. I think we’re going to be really strong this year.”

Begay averaged 15 points per game last year as a sophomore and will be one of the best all-around players in the district.

Dale, who put up 11 PPG in 2014-2015, and fellow guards Tia Woods and Lacey Howe can also score.

Senior power forwards Shontai Gray and Keishonna Begay will be tough for opposing frontcourts to handle in the paint.

“Shontai and Keishonna rebound so well, and they set good screens,” Henderson said. “They also move well for bigger girls. You can’t underestimate their athleticism.”

Henderson knows the Lady Chieftains will get a lot of teams' best efforts this year, and he said they welcome that kind of challenge as they aim for their first state title since 2002.

“We’ve been on top (in the district for a while), but our main goal is to surpass what we’ve been doing and get that state championship trophy,” Henderson said. “These games around here are going to keep us together and get us ready.”

Shiprock will open up its regular-season schedule at Gallup today.

Kirtland Central is coming off a 17-11 season, but is adjusting to a new head coach after hiring former KC boys coach John Zecca in June.

Expectations are still high in Kirtland despite the shakeup. Returning seniors Deiondra Smith, Krystal Sheeka, Megan Silversmith and Shamika Benally were all at the core of KC’s successful 2014-2015 season that ended in the the state quarterfinals.

“The group of seniors I have coming back are a really good group. They have really good instincts and have been picking up my stuff quickly,” Zecca said. “We also got a good group of younger girls who are blending in pretty well so far.”

Kirtland Central's Krystal Sheeka puts up a shot on Jan. 16 during a game against Moriarty at Bronco Arena in Kirtland.

Three of those four returning seniors are guards, as is up-and-coming sophomore Haile Gleason. Zecca said his guard play will likely define the Lady Broncos’ season.

“We have a lot of perimeter players — we’re pretty guard heavy,” he said. “But that’s OK because they’re well rounded, they can shoot the outside shot and they can get to the bucket, which is something I’ve always emphasized.”

The offense will click before the defense does, but Zecca expects that side of the ball to get better as the year goes on.

KC visits Navajo Pine on Dec. 1.

The Lady Bobcats went from winning only four games in 2013-2014 to going 15-13 last season. Third-year Bloomfield head coach Tom Adair said he feels like his team could take another step forward this year and compete for a district title.

“We played a lot of basketball over the summer, played in a summer league and some different camps, and have had some success,” Adair said. “The girls have worked really hard.”

Two of Bloomfield’s best players from a year ago in Rainy Bia and Jasmine Sappington have graduated. But the team is bringing back three starters and 11 of the varsity girls who lost to Santa Fe Indian School in the first round of last year’s state playoffs.

“The girls we have coming back got some good experience at state,” Adair said. “We lost to Santa Fe, but played really well in the second half. We actually outplayed them.”

Bloomfield will hang its hat on its defensive hustle and ability to force turnovers.

Setting the tone defensively will be the Bobcats’ energetic young backcourt of junior shooting guard Kara Watchman and sophomore point guard Brandi Alcantar.

Junior forward Destiny Walther broke out by averaging 16 PPG during district play last year, which earned her a spot on the all-district first team.

Bloomfield's Kara Watchman attempts a layup against Shiprock on Feb. 10 during a game at the Chieftain Pit in Shiprock.

Sophomores Kimmy Morgan, Sierra Ortiz and Mattie Waresback will also contribute, giving Bloomfield a very good young core to be excited about going forward.

A Dec. 4 road game against Crownpoint will be Bloomfield’s first test of the season.

Shiprock, KC and Bloomfield were first, second and third, respectively, in District 1-4A, last year.

Thoreau, Wingate and Zuni all finished well below the .500 mark and failed to pick up a single win against the Lady Chieftains, Broncos or Bobcats last season.

Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.