Girls basketball: LA will return size, experience

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By Mike Cote

Heading into the start of the 2009-10 season, the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls basketball team has good reason to feel good about itself.

And its opener could be a window into seeing how good the team might be.

The Hilltoppers will open the season Saturday afternoon on the road when they face the Pojoaque Elks, the defending state Class AAA champions.

With all but two players returning from last season’s team, Los Alamos thinks it should be ready to go right from the opening tip.

“We’re playing a lot together,” Hilltopper forward Kate Rooney said. “We have been playing together for a really long time and we’re really having a lot of fun with it. We’re looking forward to Pojoaque.”

Rooney is one of seven seniors on the opening night roster, all of whom saw minutes with the varsity squad in 2008-09.

Los Alamos has a solid collection of athletes and is hoping to take full advantage of it this season. It will be looking to play a running, up-tempo game, something that’s unusual to see from a team with five players listed at 5-foot-8 or above.

The mix of size and speed is something the team hopes will confound its opponents.

“This kind (of basketball) is fun to watch,” said Hilltopper head coach Tarah Logan, who is entering her second season with the program. “This kind is fun to play. These girls have the speed to do it.”

In 2008-09, Logan’s first season, the Hilltoppers ended with a record of 15-13 and were runners-up in the District 2AAAA tournament.

Los Alamos entered the postseason as an at-large team, but ended its season on a sour note, losing the 2AAAA championship game to Española Valley before getting pounded in the first round of the state playoffs by Kirtland Central.

The Hilltoppers will have a chance to avenge their loss against Kirtland Central’s Broncos during the regular season. They host the Broncos, one of the most successful girls basketball programs in the nation, Dec. 21.

In 2008-09, Los Alamos’ offense was guided by Tyree Richins at point guard. Richins is among the most respected guards in the state, as evidenced by her selection for the preseason All-Class AAAA team this season by the New Mexico High School Coaches Association.

Richins has shown good ball-handling and good outside shooting ability, but her main job this season will be to manage what could be a powerful offense, both in transition and in half-court sets.

One of the Hilltoppers’ two graduates off last season’s team, Bryanna Richins, provided one of the two solid punches the offense provided down low.

Taylor Ealey, Los Alamos’ 5-foot-10, primary scoring threat, should have plenty of assistance in the paint, however, with teammates Shelby Courtright (5-10) and Rooney (5-10), who both turned in good minutes last season. Junior forward Lindsay Benage (5-8), an excellent leaper, could also contribute down low.

“Our challenge will be coming together and focusing,” Rooney said. “A lot of times, we get hyped up. We’ve got to be patient and see the court.”

The big question mark heading into the season will be much the same as it was heading into last season: will the Hilltoppers be able to knock down their shots?

Some spotty shooting contributed mightily to two losses against Española Valley, including the district tournament championship game.

The Hilltoppers are getting some respect from around the state, however. They finished fifth in the NMHSCA preseason poll, which was released earlier this week.

St. Pius X, Los Alamos’ former district rival and the defending Class AAAA champion, was given the preseason No. 1 ranking, while Roswell, the 2008-09 state runner-up, was rated second in the poll despite losing its top player off that team, Chantelle Riddle, to graduation.

Kirtland Central was third in that same poll, followed by next-door neighbor Shiprock.

In the Class AAA poll, Pojoaque is ranked fifth.

Even if the Elks are down a notch this season, they rarely have any trouble getting amped-up to play the Hilltoppers. Saturday’s game is not only the Elks’ season opener, too, but a chance for them to hand Los Alamos another season-opening loss. Pojoaque dropped Los Alamos 63-41 in last year’s debut.

“That’s going to be a great test,” Logan said. “We got royally spanked last season. You’ve got to get ready for them.”

The Elks have thrived for the majority of their existence by running the floor. The Hilltoppers said they can’t wait to see how well they can keep up.

Logan said her second preseason with Los Alamos went well.

Practices, she said, were better organized and much more work had been getting done in anticipation of Saturday’s opener.

“(The coaching staff is) all on the same page,” she said. “It’s a better environment for the players and the coaches.”