The big stage is set. Here are some teams built to contend (and shock the state) now

Matt Hollinshead,


Navajo Prep girls

The Lady Eagles returned key players like Aiona Johnson, Hailey Martin, Laila Charley and Holly Walker from last year’s 3A state semifinals run.

Prep (24-2) was adamant it was one key player away from winning the 3A state title right now.

Prep found that final major piece in Tai Tai Woods, who brought an abundance of big-game experiences from her time at Shiprock and Piedra Vista.

Woods has been a steady anchor for Prep all year long, especially in the toughest games.

Her presence is an absolute luxury for the Lady Eagles, because she’s already faced tougher (and more talented) players on the big stage.

Prep’s last state title came in 2009.

Prep’s time to win it all is now.

Piedra Vista girls

The Lady Panthers eye their first state title in program history. And just like Navajo Prep, PV is built to win the blue trophy right now.

Despite enduring the injury bug at different points of the year, the Lady Panthers are 27-3 entering the playoffs because they’re among the deepest teams in the state.

PV (27-3) already returned much of its core group from last year’s 5A state semifinals run, including Lanae Billy, Elaina Watson and Celina Watson. Bailey Rasmussen joined this year’s cast as a solid post presence, making PV even deeper.

Remember, PV started the season at 17-0. And although La Cueva snatched away the District 2-5A regular season title by beating PV twice, the Lady Panthers took down La Cueva in last weekend’s district tournament championship game.

If the district tournament title game did anything for the Lady Panthers, they reminded the rest of New Mexico that they’re still is among the elites and ready to make a state championship run right now.

Piedra Vista's Elaina Watson looks to pass the ball against Farmington's Kamalani Anitielu (3) and Carolyn Thomas (10) during the District 2-5A girls basketball tournament semifinals on Thursday, February 27, 2020, at Jerry A. Conner Fieldhouse in Farmington.
Navajo Prep's Holly Walker moves the ball against Crownpoint during a District 1-3A girls basketball tournament semifinals game on Wednesday, February 26, 2020, at the Eagles Nest in Farmington.


Navajo Prep boys

Now that players have acclimated to coach Matt Melvin’s defense, especially his double-team zone trap schemes, the Eagles are primed to make a huge run in the 3A playoffs.

That defensive scheme will pay dividends again foes that push the ball down the floor and attack all edges of the perimeter. It’ll force shooters to stall in the outer lanes, which could in turn lead to easy turnovers upon simply trying to get rid of the ball somehow.

More importantly, Prep spent its first 15 games on the road and dealt with tougher competition along the way.

If Prep gets out of the first round, the Eagles will step into quite familiar territory: the unfamiliar and unknown world that is the state quarterfinals, nestled in the greater Albuquerque metro area. In that scenario, Prep will be ready.

Possible first-round trap games

Kirtland Central girls vs. Shiprock, 7 p.m. Friday at Bronco Arena

With their 4A playoff hopes on the line, the Lady Chieftains shut down the Lady Broncos’ speedy shooters and pulled out a 43-40 win in the District 1-4A tournament semifinals.

Shiprock again finds itself in that same matchup and environment, under nearly identical circumstances.

The Lady Chieftains again will have their backs against the wall at Bronco arena, looking to survive and advance again. Only this time, it’s the 4A state playoffs, and Kirtland could be one-and-done just as easily as Shiprock.

Following the District 1-4A tournament semifinals, Shiprock’s latest in a series of critical wins amid returning to statewide relevance, Kirtland must keep its guard up this weekend.

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577 and on Twitter at @MattH_717.

Support local journalism with a digital subscription: