Eagles seem poised to improve with a veteran lineup


All of the sudden, Belen has the most experienced boys basketball team in the county.

Their top returning players, who are likely the starting five, got a lot of court time last season that featured some progress by the Eagles. They made a bit of a turnaround, going from 2-21 in 2010-11 to 6-18 last year.

It starts inside with 6-foot, 6-inch senior Zach Martin. The post player turned into a better scorer last season, and has worked to add a defensive presence to his game over the summer.

"When you have a player like Zach, as athletic as he is, you are always happy to have a guy like him back," said Belen's second-year coach, Pat Mondragon. "We are really happy, because he has worked so hard to improve on the defensive end of the court.

"He will have as much as a positive impact on the defensive end of the court this year as he had on the offensive end of the court last year."

Belen opens at home, hosting Socorro at about 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1.

Seniors Ray Montoya, who led Class 4A in assists last year, and Nick Kurtz will make Belen a solid shooting team and will give the eagles a lot more team speed than it had last season.

"Ray can play in any position and handles the ball well," said Mondragon, noting the agile Montoya's versatility. "At 6-3, he led the state in Class 4A in assists last year."

Juniors Colton Lewis, who Mondragon thinks of as senior in leadership skills, and Dontae Vigil will set the tempo as the guard tandem for the Eagles.

"Colton has put in a ton of time on the court and in they weight room. He has a great attitude and will be a leader for us," Mondragon said.

Both Kurtz and Martin played for the Eagle football team this fall, and will not be out for basketball until seven days after the football campaign is completed.

Mondragon will rely on the inside of play of junior Chad Chavez in Martin's absence.

"Chad has improved his game, and we are looking forward to seeing what he can do," said Mondragon.

The Eagles will get help outside from juniors Thomas Cordova and Antonio Chavez.

Mondragon is excited about the play of sophomore guard Sebastian Estep.

"We are looking forward to having him for a few years," Mondragon said.

With the Belen football team looking to advance at least to the state semifinals, the Eagles might be without miss Martin and Kurtz for possibly six games. In fact, the team mostly likely will not be at full strength until the holiday Poe Corn tournament in Roswell, starting Dec. 27, but Mondragon is not worried.

"We have some great depth this year, and some of these kids that people don't know too much about will get to show what they can do," said the Eagle coach. "We have faith in all of them."

One of the reasons Mondragon feels that Belen will be better this year is a concentration on defense. With the speed of the guards, Belen should be better at pressuring the ball.

"We have put in a lot of work in practice on defensive skills," Mondragon said. "If we are going to go as far as we can go this year, then it has to come from the defensive end."

Atrisco Heritage visits on Tuesday, Dec. 4. The opening tip is slated for around 7 p.m.

The Eagles' gym has seen a lot of upgrades over the offseason, including having the court resurfaced and painted and the ventilation system updated. There are plans for new scoreboards and a video display board.

"We are very thankful for the type of people we have working for us here," said Mondragon of Superintendent Ron Marquez, the Belen Board of Education and Athletic Coordinator Rodney Wright. "They are taking care of us and we are very pleased with the support we are getting for the basketball program here."

The historic Poe Corn Tournament is a tourney the Eagles have played in several times in the past few seasons.

"Those will be fun games to play," said Mondragon, whose Eagles open with Piedra Vista in the tourney. "We are very happy to get back into the Poe Corn tournament. It will be a chance for us to get away and grow closer as a team."

He noted that it will not lessen the county rivalries.

"We will play each other two or three times during the year and that will be plenty," said Mondragon. "It gives us a chance to see a few other teams."

-- Email the author at mstearns@news-bulletin.com.