Girls basketball: LA travels to Grants for first round of playoffs

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By Mike Cote

Last year, the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls basketball team was a No. 5 seed trying to stave off an upset bid against a No. 12 seed.

In 2011, the Hilltoppers will play the role of spoiler in that same scenario.

Los Alamos (13-14) earned an at-large nod into the 2011 state Class 4A playoffs. It will travel to Grants to take on a formidable foe. Tip-off time is scheduled for 6 p.m.

The Class 4A playoffs open Friday and continue through March 12 when the new champs will be crowned at The Pit in Albuquerque.

The Kirtland Central Broncos (25-1) are the defending 4A champions. They have won 18 state titles since 1980 and are the odds on favorites to add to that total in 2011.

The Pirates (21-4), meanwhile, had a stellar season against every team they played that wasn't Gallup. Of the Pirates' four losses during the regular season, three of them were to Gallup's Bengals in District 6AAAA play, including a 75-50 loss to the Bengals in the district tournament championship.

The Pirates, however, did benefit from two forfeit victories early in the season against the Piedra Vista Panthers. Piedra Vista, the No. 11 seed in the tournament, had to forfeit eight games early in the season after it was determined it had used an ineligible player for its first eight contests of the season, all wins.

Grants first-year head coach Bill McLaughlin said the team he inherited from Tim Van Hecke — a former head coach at Los Alamos — has plenty of talent but struggled to an 8-16 record in 2009-10.

The Pirates are young, but McLaughlin said things have gelled for them about as well as they could've.

"Our freshman class is really good," said McLaughlin. "(Center) Teige Zeller is fundamentally sound. She's really solid on the offensive and defensive end…she brings that to the table for us."

Zeller, who stands 6-foot-1, could find herself in an interesting match-up with Los Alamos talented 6-foot freshman Hayley Each. Each has gotten the starting nod in several of the team's late-season games.

McLaughlin said his main challenge when taking over the Pirates program was just establishing his style of play. Once the team bought into his system, things took off.

"We started eight or nine different starting lineups this year," he said. "We feel like our top nine or 10 kids can start for us. That's been a big plus."

Grants' style of play demands a deep bench.

The Pirates like to play full 94-foot defense, using several different zone and pressure tactics to force turnovers. The Pirates create an average of 25 turnovers per game.

While that type of defense won't be anything new to the Hilltoppers, who have seen that out of their arch-rival, Española Valley, for three straight years, as well as several other teams.

Los Alamos' challenge will be to limit those turnovers and transition chances by Grants and force the Pirates to play more half-court offense and defense.

District 6 is the best-represented in the Class 4A playoffs this season, getting four teams into the state tournament. Along with Grants, No. 2-seeded Gallup, No. 9-seeded Valencia and No. 13-seeded Miyamura will represent District 6 in the fight for a state title.

Gallup (23-4) ended up with the third-best win total in 4A this season and went a perfect 11-0 in the very competitive 6AAAA. Grants lost just one 6AAAA game other than the losses to Gallup, that against Valencia in late January.

The Pirates have decent height on their roster. Along with Zeller, they also feature 5-10 senior forward Katherine Tillman and a pair of 5-7 players — one of which, Brianna Frank, is also a freshman — making the Pirates one of the taller teams the Hilltoppers will face this season.

Grants won't be the most seasoned team Los Alamos has seen this season, however. The team features just three seniors and seven underclassmen.

For the Hilltoppers, Each has come up big during recently. Adding an effective driving game to her arsenal, Each has been among the team's leading scorers of late.

In the 2AAAA tournament semifinal, Each paced the team with 14 points, including a big 3-point play in the fourth quarter that quelled a big rally by a red-hot Bernalillo team that had cut the Hilltopper lead from 10 points to just one.

Los Alamos will also be looking for a big showing from senior guards Tina Radosevich and Kamille Chavez, who also had solid showings during the 2AAAA tournament. Los Alamos has likewise gotten good minutes from post Erin Kirk and quality offensive and defensive performance from freshman McKenzie Logan.

Also in the first round of the 4A tournament, Española Valley (22-2), which posted the second-best winning percentage behind top-seeded Kirtland Central, earned a top-four seed and will take on Miyamura (16-10).

The Sundevils are led by 2AAAA Player of the Year Justine Vigil, but Vigil got plenty of support this year from slashing off-guard Lauren Quintana and some timely buckets from post player Desiree Howie.

Should both Los Alamos and Española Valley prevail Friday, they would meet again for the fourth time this season and the ninth time in the last two seasons in next week's quarterfinals.

Santa Fe (12-14), the third team to be selected out of District 2, has the unenviable task of playing Kirtland Central in the opening round.

Incredibly, Kirtland Central has failed to reach the state title game just four times since 1979. Kirtland Central has won 18 state championships, four more than the second-most successful girls program in state history, Eldorado.

Los Alamos has never won a girls basketball state title. It has reached the state title game once in program history, that coming in 1988 under Van Hecke, who left Los Alamos after the 1994-95 season to start what would be an ill-fated tenure at Eldorado, which was along with Kirtland Central the premier program in the state of New Mexico.

The Hilltoppers' best recent finish was in 2001, when they took third in Class 4A under the tutelage of Gerry Washburn.

Here is the schedule for the first two rounds of the boys and girls Class 4A state tournaments.

Class 4A girls

Friday, home sites
(16) Santa Fe at (1) Kirtland Central, 6 p.m.
(9) Valencia at (8) Albuquerque Academy, 7 p.m.
(12) Los Alamos at (5) Grants, 6 p.m.
(13) Miyamura at (4) Española Valley, 7 p.m.
(14) St. Pius X at (3) Gallup, 7 p.m.
(11) Piedra Vista at (6) Del Norte, 7 p.m.
(10) Artesia at (7) Deming, 7 p.m.
(15) Santa Teresa at (2) Roswell, 7 p.m.

Tuesday (all games at The Pit)
Santa Fe-Kirtland Central winner vs. Valencia-Academy winner, 1:15 p.m.
Los Alamos-Grants winner vs. Miyamura-Española Valley winner, 4:45 p.m.
St. Pius-Gallup winner vs. Piedra Vista-Del Norte winner, 8:15 p.m.
Artesia-Deming winner vs. Santa Teresa-Roswell winner, 9:45 a.m.

Class 4A boys

Saturday, home sites
(16) Kirtland Central at (1) Gallup, 7 p.m.
(9) Grants at (8) Goddard, 6 p.m.
(12) Aztec at (5) Roswell, 2 p.m.
(13) Los Lunas at (4) Piedra Vista, 7 p.m.
(14) Santa Fe at (3) Santa Teresa, 6 p.m.
(11) Valencia at (6) St. Pius X, 7 p.m.
(10) Albuquerque Academy at (7) Capital, 7 p.m.
(15) Del Norte at (2) Española Valley, 7 p.m.

Wednesday (all games at The Pit)
Kirtland Central-Gallup winner vs. Grants-Goddard winner, 3 p.m.
Aztec-Roswell winner vs. Los Lunas-Piedra Vista winner, 8 a.m.
Santa Fe-Santa Teresa winner vs. Valencia-St. Pius winner, 11:30 a.m.
Academy-Capital winner vs. Del Norte-Española Valley winner, 6:30 p.m.