Los Lunas proved to be the class of Class 4A in the 2012-13 season.

The Tigers rambled through the regular season before doing the same in the state tournament to claim the school’s first state championship in girls basketball.

News-Bulletin file photo: VALENCIA HIGH’s hopes of advancing further in the post-season rest on players like junior Savannah Strump, right.

LLHS is widely regarded as the favorite to repeat as state champs in 2013-14, but state tournament participants Valencia and up-and-coming Belen could have something to say about the Tigers’ chances to repeat at state and in District 6-4A.

The Tigers drive for a second title got off to a slow start at practice due to another Tiger team’s post-season play — the LLHS’ volleyball team, which shares six players with the 2012-13 squad.

But coach Marty Zeller, who led Los Lunas to a 28-4 record and its first state title in his first year at the helm, is not worried. If anything, Zeller said he’s optimistic about his team’s development after summer work outs..

“I’m really pleased with a lot of aspects now,” he said. “Our mental approach is better than it was in the first year. They’ve learned to have the mindset of a champion and now they have to defend that championship.”

Adopting the motto of “One heartbeat for a repeat,” Zeller’s team appears to be well set to achieve that goal, despite losing two key seniors from last year’s championship squad — guards Taniya Muprhy and Nikki Hathoot.

Senior post Teige Zeller, a recent signee with the University of Nevada, Reno, and the coach’s daughter, is one key returnee — as is fellow post senior Katie Inman.

News-Bulletin file photo: SENIOR POST TIEGE ZELLER, right, and the Los Lunas girls basketball will be looking to repeat as state champions after earning a No. 1 seed and eventually winning the school’s first state title in last year’s Class 4A State Girls Basketball Tournament.

Zeller said junior Elise Tapia, who can play everything from point guard to power forward for the Tigers, is one player he expects to step up and be an impact player as are sophomores Jordan Holland, another player who can play multiple positions, and point guard Cera Chavez.

“It’s nice to have several multi-position players,” Coach Zeller said. “Chavez’ shooting can just destroy a zone. And she’s one of the quickest players I’ve ever seen.”

Junior Kaitlyn Thompson, who spent most of last season inured, could also be a big factor in the Tigers’ lineup, as well as senior Dominique Pohl, who Zeller calls “a true playmaker.”

“She’s a penetrator with a purpose,” Zeller said. “We’re working hard on that for all players. They’ve come a long way in that regard.”

With three seniors and up to three juniors, the Tigers are not hurting for upperclassman leadership. With their penchant for pressure defense and the ability to both run and shoot from the half-court sets, the LLHS is a solid pick by most to repeat a state title run.

“That target is on our back,” Zeller said. “We had the target on our back last year, but it was a bit unrealistic. To come in being a new coach with a new team and be ranked pre-season No. 1, I was like ‘That can’t be right. When has that happened?”

News-Bulletin file photo: MARIAH FORDE, center, and the Belen girls basketball team look to continue improving and becoming more consistent this season, as well as earning a post-season berth.

This time around, though, a pre-season No. 1 is something that was earned and expected.

Which is not to say the Tigers are a finished product.

“Everyone of our players have to improve more on being more conscientious about driving the lane and passing,” Zeller said. “If we continue to improve on that as much as we have in the last week, we could be a very dangerous team as far as getting our opponents in foul trouble.

“But most importantly we’ve got to play a full 32 minutes, every game.”

With three teams likely to begin the season in the top 10 — Los Lunas, perennial state contenders Gallup and Valencia — and Gallup Miyamura, Grants and Belen improving, Zeller said District 6-4A is going to be very competitive. And that should hone all league teams, come state tournament time.

“We’ll be battle-tested,” Zeller said. “We were battle-tested last year going into state. And we’ll be battle-tested this year.”

Los Lunas begins the season on Dec. 3 at Albuquerque Del Norte followed by a game at Bernalillo on Dec. 5. The Tigers’ first home game is Tuesday. Dec. 10 against Albuquerque Valley.

News-Bulletin file photo: DOMINIQUE POHL (10) leads a Los Lunas team that relied on pressure defense to propel the school to its first state title girls basketball last season, something the Tigers hope to repeat this season.

Head coach Shannon Vigil gets straight to the point when talking about the Jaguars’ hopes for the 2013-14 season.

“We have the motto of ‘Unfinished Business,’” she said emphatically. “We felt last year we could have gone further. It’s our goal to win a game at The Pit this year. We’re in a tough district, so it’ll be a battle.”

Valencia finished 20-9 in 2012-13, earning a No. 6 seed and beating Albuquerque Academy badly at home before falling to Santa Fe at University Arena in the state quarterfinals.

The team lost four seniors, but seven seniors return this season.

“We lost some, leadership-wise, but we definitely have girls who can fill those spots nicely,” Vigil said.

Among the top returnees for the Jags are senior post player Brenda Baeza, senior guard Karina Dow and senior center Miranda Chavez as well as junior post Savannah Stump.

Vigil said all 11 players are expected to contribute, including the team’s four freshmen. Of the four frosh, point guard Lorien Aragon is a key as Vigil said she expects Aragon to take over at point guard.

News-Bulletin file photo: VALENCIA POST Brenda Baeza (23) was one of the Jaguars players during last season’s run to the post-season.

“She’s been playing basketball since she was little,” said Vigil. “She can run plays effectively, bring the ball up and get it the people we need to get it to.”

Junior guard Kristina Contratto, who missed last season due to an knee injury suffered in soccer, will also be back.

The Jags strength in Vigil’s five years has been a pressing defense, which feeds well into VHS’s aggressive, up tempo offensive style, which will continue this season.

The team’s main issue, Vigil said, is depth as the team is only carrying 11 players this season.

“Our main issue is staying healthy since we only have 11 girls,” she said. “We’ll be continuing our motto of defense and taking the shots we’re supposed to make and finish around the basket.”

Valencia is looking to advance beyond the state quarterfinal game, which the Jags played in for the last three seasons.

Winning a district title is an obvious goal, but with teams like Gallup and cross-town rival Los Lunas in their path, a district title is a high order.

“We always want to finish first, but our goal would probably be a top-three finish,” Vigil said. “Los Lunas has Teige (Zeller) back and she’s probably the best player in the state.

“The Gallup schools are tough, Belen is going to be tough. It’s a tough, tough district,” she said

Vigil points to the five schools that District 6-4A placed in the 16-team state tournament field last year as proof of the league’s potency as well as Los Lunas and Gallup’s placement in the top echelon of Class 4A.

“The district probably could have gotten all six teams in last year,” Vigil said. “It’s a strong, competitive district. Los Lunas is the favorite because they won it all last year, but Gallup is going to be pretty strong.”

Valencia begins the season away from home, beginning Friday night a Sandia Prep, Tuesday at St. Pius X in Albuquerque then a three-game stint in Santa Fe at the Capital Invitational next weekend.

The Jags first home game is scheduled for Dec. 16 against Santa Fe Indian School.

The Eagles went 7-18 in coach Dereck Atencio’s first year of coaching and were the only District 6-4A team not be included in the 16-team state tournament field last season.

Atencio said BHS showed promise in 2012-13, but was undone by turnovers and miscues at bad times.

“We’re trying to be more consistent,” Atencio said. “Last year we’d play with the really, really good things but didn’t play so well against teams that were not as good.

We’re a year older in the system and style we play.”

Atencio recalled his team’s final game in the district tournament at Gallup High, as an example.

The Lady Bengals sprinted out to a 17-8 lead in the first quarter but the Eagles narrowly out-scored Gallup in quarters two and three, proving to be competitive the rest of the game.

“We had some turnovers at bad times, we had some miscues at bad times last year,” Atencio said. “We’re trying to be more solid in crunch time.”

With nine returning letter-winners, all of them seniors or juniors, Belen should improve this season. But their district is stacked, Atencio said.

“Last year we were playing in a district with teams that were all ranked in the top 10, except Grants who were 11th and us, who were 14th,” Atencio said. “We were lucky enough to knock off Miyamura, who was seventh at the time.

“We’re just going to try to build and improve, and hopefully eliminate some of the costly errors we made last year,” he said. “Hopefully, that translates to being the best on the floor.”

Atencio said junior guards Kaylyn Gomez and Mariah Forde are expected to be among the team’s top returning players, as well as senior post Kristian Sainz. Senior forward Allison Lehman will move up from the junior varsity and is expected to be a contributor as well.

Atencio said playing a solid man-to-man defense at the basket and getting out and running on offense is again the style of play he wants his team to play. He emphasizes that the Eagles should not “beat themselves.”

“With the teams we play, it’s a matter of limiting errors,” Atencio said. “You can’t beat yourself. With teams this good, you have to limit your errors. We want to be solid at the basket.”

Belen opens their season at home against state tournament participants Albuquerque Academy on Saturday and Socorro on Tuesday, before taking a break over Thanksgiving and returning with a game at Rio Grande on Dec. 2.