FARMINGTON — From top to bottom, District 1-5A is primed to be one of the state's most competitive districts for girls basketball this upcoming season.
Gone from class 5A is the 6A-bound Piedra Vista Lady Panthers, but making the jump from 4A to 5A are Bloomfield and Kirtland Central, two schools that made it to the state playoffs last year after finishing well above .500.
There's no clear front-runner to take the district, but multiple teams will throw their hats in the ring. After storming through 1-5A last year with an undefeated district record — and not suffering its first loss until the 5A state final — Gallup has a shot to repeat as district champions. The Lady Bengals will be hard-pressed to dominate the way they did last year after losing Ni'Asia McIntosh to graduation. McIntosh was one of the most skilled players in the state and easily the best rebounder in the district.
Fourth-year Aztec coach Robert McCaskill enjoyed his first winning season with the Lady Tigers last year when they went 19-9. The team roared out of the gate with a 14-2 start before sliding a bit down the stretch, and fell to PV in the opening round at state.
Aztec will return three starters and nearly all of its key players from last year with the exception of Elana Kresl, last season's leading scorer and the team's heart and soul. McCaskill said it's going to take a collective effort to replace Kresl's leadership and production.
McCaskill said that while his team is doing a decent job jelling this fall, it takes longer than a year to completely turn a program around, and he's still mired in that process as the head coach.
"The team's coming together well. We need a little improvement in confidence," McCaskill said. "Like I've always said, we're in a community that is not known for basketball, and we're still learning what it takes to win basketball games."
McCaskill's daughters, Myra and Makayla, will try to take a step forward after finishing second and third, respectively, in points per game for Aztec last season.
Bloomfield returns all five starters from last year's 19-11 team and its top eight players, in terms of production; the team's three seniors from last season averaged a combined 1.3 points per game.
The Lady Bobcats are deep, and coach Tom Adair said he believes Bloomfield's bench is the best it's been since he became coach. Forward Destiny Walther will continue to be the focal point of the offense after averaging 14 points and eight rebounds per contest a season ago. Adair said he's excited about all the experience his team will bring to 5A.
"We expect to compete and do well," Adair said. "We did four team camps over the summer and competed against 5A and 6A schools, and we felt like we did well. It's a very tough district and every night is going to be a tough game."
Led by Haile Gleason, who scored 14.5 points per game as a sophomore last year, Kirtland Central is another team that will likely do well after finishing last season with a 21-9 record.
Like Bloomfield, the Lady Broncos won their opening-round state playoff game earlier this year, before being ousted in the second round.
KC lost key seniors in Shamika Benally, Megan Silversmith and Krystal Sheka, but coach John Zecca isn't worried, saying he believes KC has one of the deepest programs in the area.
"We have a lot of good young talent coming to fill those voids," he said. "I've got quite a few freshmen that could play at the varsity level right now, we just have a lot of kids in the system that we gotta be patient with. But we expect to get valuable minutes from some of those girls sooner than later."
For KC to sniff the 20-win mark again, Gleason will need to take another step forward, and Zecca believes she's capable of doing that.
"She looks good so far in practices. She's one of the few that's been around playing varsity for more than a couple of years," Zecca said. "We're looking for her to take more of a leadership role in practice, and she's doing that."
Farmington is a bit of an unknown this year after graduating seven seniors and hiring coach Brady Rivers to replace the recently resigned Danny Secrest. Nearly all of Farmington's production last season came from its seniors.
The Lady Scorps were knocked out of the playoffs last season in the opening round. Rivers, who previously coached hoops at PV and Shiprock, admits his team is rebuilding, but said he thinks it can still find success this year.
"We got a young back court. The front court at least has a little more age," Rivers said. "But even with the young back court, some of them did contribute in junior varsity last year. We think some of the girls will definitely be more prepared than girls who are just now starting in varsity."
Rivers said he plans to mix it up on defense, while retaining some of Secrest's offensive principles. The FHS roster is made up of five seniors, four sophomores and one junior.
Miyamura went 8-18 in 2015-2016 and only graduated three seniors last spring.
Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.