FARMINGTON — As the boys basketball season gets underway this week, no team stands above the others in District 1-4A.
Reclassification shook up the district, moving Bloomfield and Kirtland Central to 5A and bumping Navajo Prep up from 3A to join Shiprock, Thoreau and Wingate in the district.
“I think it will be very competitive,” Shiprock coach Chester Atcitty said of this year’s district. “You never know who Navajo Prep is going to bring in, and whoever transfers there is automatically eligible. Wingate and Thoreau, you can never count them out. I think it’s going to be very competitive.”
Shiprock enters this year after a 17-13 campaign last season that included a triple-overtime win over Wingate for the district tournament title.
But the Chieftains were hit hard by graduation, losing key players from last year’s production and leaving the door open for this year’s crop of seniors to take charge of the team.
“I’m hoping my seniors will step up and take on that role of being leaders on the floor to take this team to its ultimate destination, which is the playoffs and a chance to advance in the playoffs,” Atcitty said.
With not much size on this year’s roster, Shiprock will rely on its guard play and defense to hopefully reach its post-season goals.
The Chieftains will also face a strong nondistrict schedule, playing in Farmington’s Marv Sanders Invitational and Hope Christian’s tournament, as well as a home game with Pojoaque Valley. Atcitty said the two strong tournaments and the meeting with a traditionally great Pojoaque Valley team will be a good measuring stick for the team as it gets ready for the district schedule.
Navajo Prep is coming off its best season in more than a decade after posting a 21-8 record in 2015-2016. It was the first winning season for the program since 2009-2010 and a massive turnaround from the Eagles’ 5-21 season in 2014-2015.
The Eagles earned the No. 10 seed in the 3A state tournament and advanced to the quarterfinals before being eliminated by eventual state champion Texico.
This season, Prep will send out a different team than last year after losing its top two leading scorers, Nachae Nez and Isaiah Chavez.
“It’s going to be tough for us. We’re going to be a lot younger this year and look a lot different. We averaged about 53 points per game last year and lost about 31 of them,” Prep coach Rick Hoerner said. “Losing Nachae Nez and Isaiah Chavez is going to be tough. We counted on them to do a lot of scoring, and we’re going to look a lot different. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Chavez graduated and Nez, who would be a senior this year, no longer attends Prep, which is a private school.
With the void in offensive production, Hoerner said he plans to utilize what the Eagles do have — size.
“I definitely think our big guys are going to have to contribute. Dylan Begay, Tyler Pete and Anthony Pioche-Lee, they’re going to have to make up the bulk of that scoring,” Hoerner said.
If that trio can control the game in the post, it will take a lot of pressure off of Prep’s younger and inexperienced guards, led by freshman Thomas Montanez.
Montanez will start the season as the Eagles’ point guard. Hoerner said the freshman is a smart player with good court sense, but added that his inexperience could present challenges during the course of the season.
Rounding out District 1-4A are Thoreau and Wingate.
Thoreau’s program has been in a state of limbo since the departure of coach Ervin Bennett, who led the team for five years. Last year, the Hawks finished 5-22 and didn’t earn a win in district play. They can only improve with coach Zack Cashwell in his second year with the program.
Wingate comes into the season with a few question marks as well. The Bears finished 2015-2016 at 15-15 and made the 4A tournament as the No. 15 seed, but lost five seniors, including the team’s three captains, from a year ago.
However, the young Bears team has shown promise, splitting a pair of games against Shiprock during the summer.
Prep will open the season on Friday when it hosts Bosque.
Shiprock’s season gets started Tuesday when the Chieftains welcome San Juan High, out of Blanding, Utah, to the Chieftain Pit.
Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648.