By Dave Wagner
Most of the players on Regina Downing’s Clovis Lady Wildcats 14-and-under basketball team are fresh off a two-day camp in Las Cruces held last week.
They’re busy getting ready for an even longer trip — national AAU competition at Clarksville, Tenn.
The 11-member squad, many of whom are playing in AAU nationals for a fourth consecutive year, will leave by car for Tennessee on Wednesday. They will participate in Friday night’s opening ceremonies on the campus of Austin Peay University, then begin pool play on Saturday morning.
They don’t seem to mind the busy summer schedule.
“We’re excited to go to nationals,” post player Aimee Hilburn said. “We have a chance to do something good. Sometimes people don’t give us the credit we deserve, but we want to show them that we can do well.”
The team had its best finish in nationals last year, placing 13th in 13-and-under competition at Orlando, Fla.
“I think we’ve matured this year,” said Downing, who is assisted by her husband, Warren, and by Sheila Holly. “We’ve played up (in age divisions of tournaments) a lot, and that’s helped us work on our weaknesses. Our rebounding is stronger this year, and our defense is outstanding.”
Around 85 teams will be at the national meet, broken into pools of mostly four teams. The Lady Cats meet Team Texas, from the Dallas area, in their opener at 11 a.m. (MDT) on Saturday.
“This year we’ve been working harder and have more experience,” guard Tori Quintana said. “I’m hoping this time we at least end up in the Elite Four.”
Clovis faced Team Texas earlier in a tournament this spring, winning by more than 30 points. But the Lady Cats aren’t taking anything for granted.
“We still need to worry about them,” Quintana said. “We’ve gotten better since then, but they could get just as good as we are.”
Other pool games are against Memphis Elite on Saturday night and Cincinnati-based Cincy Ice on Sunday afternoon. The top two teams in each pool advance into bracket play, with the championship scheduled for July 19.
“We’ve been progressing each year, and that’s the good thing,” Warren Downing said. “During the summer these girls are getting about 80 games. That gives them experience and confidence.”
Seven girls are heading into their sophomore years at CHS — Hilburn, Quintana, Jessica Russell, Vanessa O’Neal, Courtney Newman, Lucretia McGhee and Brittany Blackmon. Morgan Hill of Portales and Talmai Aguirre of Silver City will also be sophomores this year, while Tori Northcutt will be a ninth grader and Ebony Bunton an eighth grader at Marshall Junior High.
Aguirre is in her first season with the Lady Cats while O’Neal, Bunton and Hill are second-year participants. The others have been with the program all four years.
“These kids are playing very well,” Regina Downing said. “We’re doing some good things on the defensive end. We’re able to handle the (opponents) one-on-one this year, where last year we couldn’t.”
Hilburn said she enjoys playing for her.
“She’s awesome; I love Coach Downing,” Hilburn said. “She’s smart, and she knows what she’s talking about.
“You don’t really know (what to expect) until you get there and start playing,” she added. “We’re just focusing on what we need to do and not worried about the competition.”