ALL EYES ON THE PRIZE

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While Valencia County has been busy becoming in high school football hotbed, the three Class 4A schools in the county have been quietly improving as part of what some call the toughest district in the state at the 4A level.

The 2012-13 boys basketball season looks like it could be a banner one for the Belen, Los Lunas and Valencia boys as well as District 6-4A, which includes perennial state contenders Gallup and up-and-comers Grants and Gallup Miyamura.

News-Bulletin file photo: VALENCIA’S JOSH BACA, is one of the key players on a Jaguar team that is looking to erase the memories of a five-win season in 2012-13 with the help of first-year coach Hamilton Doyle.

Second-year coach Travis Julian transformed a Tiger team that had not been middle of the road in recent years into a team that went undefeated in district last season then moved on to the final four before losing a close game to eventual state champs Albuquerque St. Pius X.

Los Lunas lost eight seniors from that squad, including top scorer Ben Romero, and three starters, but with six lettermen returning, Julian said he has high hopes for the team this season.

“We have a talented group of seniors this year,” he said, pointing to his team’s summer workouts as proof. “Our summer program was successful because of the commitment our team, and these seniors, made. I hope that that summer season experience carries over into the winter.”

Among those seniors Julian is relying on are guards Chris Sanchez and Chad Murphy, as well as wing Jacob Holland and 5-foot-11 forward Jalen Chavez, who Julian referred to as a key player for Los Lunas this season.

News-Bulletin file photo: LOS LUNAS’ Jalen Chavez, Belen’s Colton Lewis, center, and Tiger Jacob Holland, right, are shown here playing against each other at Belen High School last season. All three players are expected to lead their respective teams in the 2013-14 season.

“He’s going to be undersized in the post, but he’s really strong and a great competitor,” Julian said. “He’s also a very good leader.”

One issue the Tigers will have to deal with again this season is having all eight of their expected seniors still playing football into late November, far past the first day of practice.

“It’s one of those situations where you’ve got to be supportive,” Julian said. “I’m happy for them because they get to try to do something that hadn’t been done at Los Lunas High, in terms of winning a state championship.”

That said, the absence of the eight seniors has had an upside, Julian opined.

“We’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the younger kids and expose them to the varsity coaches and play at the varsity level experience,” he said. “We may start of the season slowly but I expect for us to peak at the right time, which is February.”

Two newcomers Julian is expected to contribute to the Tigers’ success are juniors Hector Ayala, who showed a lot of ability in the junior varsity last season, Josiah Sanchez, who played with the varsity as a freshman but sat out his sophomore season dealing with personal issues, and senior Sasha Gallegos.

“I think of him as the biggest example of an unsung hero,” Julian said of Gallegos. “He’s one of those guys who does well no matter what. It doesn’t matter if he starts or comes off the bench.”

The up-tempo offense and pressing defense Los Lunas exhibited last season will again be in effect this season, but Julian said structure is a key as well.

News-Bulletin file photo: JUNIOR QUINTIN WANSTALL of Valencia High School is one of several sharpshooting players first-year coach Hamilton Doyle believes will help lead the Jaguars to new heights in district play and possibly all the way to the Class 4A State Boys Basketball Tournament.

“We have good athletes so we want to run when we can,” he said. “But we want to make sure we play the right way. We don’t want to be undisciplined. We want to be a team that can play up tempo but can also execute.”

Some observers have already penciled the Tigers into the state championship game, which Julian said is flattering. But the coach emphasized the strength of District 6-6A this season.

“It’s going to be a tough district,” he said. “We have three teams that are underrated — Valencia, Grants and Miyamura. All three have good talent and size coming back. Belen, I have a lot of respect for Coach Mondragon. Gallup had a good program going. It’ll be a hard fought district this year.”

With all that said, Julian said he likes his team’s chances.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about this year,” Julian said. “I think we have a chance to do some big things.”

The Tigers begin play Friday, Dec. 6, at home against Las Cruces Centennial.

Third-year coach Patrick Mondragon and his Eagles squad were a game away from the state tournament last season, losing to Los Lunas in the district championship game.

Mondragon said the team’s 12-15 record was a bit misleading, especially considering their run through the district tournament.

“Last year I thought we had a team that was good enough to compete for a state championship,” he said. “We had a lot of ups and down and injuries. I felt we got slighted by tournament committee and the guys felt that way too.

“I think it’s put a chip on our shoulder and got us to work harder,” he said. “The kids haven’t forgotten being overlooked. They want to make sure they’re not in that position again.”

News-Bulletin file photo: BELEN’S CHAD CHAVEZ is on half of a dynamic front-court combo that Eagles’ coach Patrick Mondragon hopes will help BHS take the next steps to becoming a contender both in District 6-4A as well as at the state wide level.

Losing three seniors from last year’s squad, all starters, could hurt, but with five seniors and five juniors on this year’s team, Mondragon said he feels the team has shown a bigger commitment this season.

“After last year, we evaluated how the year went on,” he said. “The biggest issue was commitment. We had to play a number of games down some players for a number of off court reasons. That hurt us. But I feel the players are a lot more committed this year.”

Senior guards Colton Lewis and Thomas Cordova are two of the players Mondragon said will help the team’s up tempo offense get into gear this season, with Cordova at the point.

In the back court, senior Chad Chavez and junior forward Emilio Ulibarri are expected to be key players as well.

“Emilio played a lot of minutes last year and helped us go on the run to the district championship game,” Mondragon said.

Among the newcomers, Mondragon singled out junior forward Lucas Chavez, who is up from the junior varsity this season.

“He worked hard in the off season,” he said. “He didn’t play a lot of varsity ball last year but he’s one player who’d going to be known by the end of the season.”

Mondragon said his team’s goal is obvious, a district championship and state tourney berth. But it won’t be easy.

News-Bulletin file photo: LOS LUNAS GUARD Chad Muprhy was a key component of the Tigers’ district championship sqaud that made the Class 4A final four in the state boys basketball tournament last season.

“It’s going to be a competitive district,” he said. “Valencia has a lot of talent back and started playing well at the end of last season, Grants has a new coach and a lot of talent.” Mondragon also pointed out that Los Lunas and gallup ar among the best in Class 4A.

“You can’t take a night of in this district,” Mondragon surmised. “You have to come out and play every night. We just look forward to getting better each game until district then focus on playing one night at a time.”

The Eagles open the season Tuesday at Atrisco Heirtage Aacdemy them host Rio Grande next Thursday night.

First-year coach Hamilton Doyle inherited a Jaguars team that, on the surface, was left wanting when it finished the 2012-13 season with a 5-22 record.

But Doyle, who spent the last few season at East Mountain High School in Edgewood and had previous coaching stints at Los Lunas High, Socorro and West Las Vegas, said he saw potential coming and has seen plenty of good things since.

“I think it’s actually going to be pretty good,” he said of his motion offensive system. “The kids like it and have bought into it. I think we’ll play a unique way and it’ll be an eye opener to lot of people.”

The Jags have three starters returning form last year and six seniors, including Doyle’s son, Josh, who was a starter and leading scorer for East Mountain.

That should give the team a good core to start from, he said..

With the younger Doyle matching up with junior point guard Quintin Wanstall and wiry junior post Garrett Gibson, as well as senior post Josh Baca, the Jaguars could see a big improvement not just in their level of play but also on the scoreboard and win-loss sheet.

“We played this way at West Las Vegas,” said Coach Doyle, describing the system the Dons used to make the state championship game in 2008.

“We have the kids same caliber of kids here,” he said. “They’ve already come to the program with certain amount skills. With this system we’ll try to enhance and mingle those skills so they’ll learn to play well together.”

In addition to his starters, Doyle said he expects contributions from reclassified senior Daniel Silva, a swing player Doyle calls an “unknown commodity,” as well as junior Juan Lopez and sophomore Fermin Lucero, who will share time at the point with Wanstall.

With their motion offense, which relies not on set plays but having the players read the opponents defense and react, as well as a range of defensive approaches including man-to-man and zone, Doyle said his team is looking to be difficult to prepare for.

“What we’re going to try to do is play intelligent basketball,” he said. “My approach is to play as many different defenses as we can. We want to disrupt what the other teams is doing and not let them establish a rhythm.”

Asked what his thoughts were on the district, Doyle deferred.

“As I get older I don’t like to focus on what the other side is doing,” he said, emphasizing that the team’s goal is making the state tournament and playing in The Pit.

“I want to focus on making us better,” he said. “I believe we have the people to get us to (state) this year. I think these kids are very capable getting there (to The Pit). Once you get there, the magic begins,” he said.

The Jags began the season hosting Hot Springs Tuesday night and host Deming at 4 p.m. Saturday.