Wildcats’ eyes on 5A prize

Seniors Tigg Bunton, left, and Dominique Easterlin hope to make their presence known in the paint and bring a state basketball championship to Clovis. CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth

By Eric Butler: CNJ correspondent

Success breeds confidence and several Clovis Wildcats will take to the hardwood this boys basketball season teeming with memories of past triumphs.

Maybe that’s why senior Tigg Bunton, after moving to Florida for his junior year, has only two words for how he thinks the team will do this year.

“Win state,” said Bunton, a 6-foot-8 post for the Wildcats, who has been on championship teams in the past — albeit on not such grand a scale — with several of his current teammates.

“We’ve got a great chance. We’ve been talking about this since the third grade — we’ve been looking forward to this,” said 6-5 forward Dominique Easterlin.

Bunton, Easterlin, Tizrick Phillips, Jacob Jones and team captain Elliott Hita — all seniors — played on the same youth league squad and at Marshall Junior High.

“We all went to Marshall and went undefeated for three years,” Easterlin said. “Now we’re all back together again.”
More will be needed, however, if Clovis is to better a third-place finish in district last year, which kept the Wildcats out of the postseason.

More help is on the way.

Guard John Props and junior forward Devin Sweet are among five varsity players who are part of the Clovis football team that is still alive in the state playoffs.

The addition of Props, who hit a game-winning 3-pointer at Hobbs last year, and the 6-3 Sweet will mean extra shooting and height for the Wildcats.

“This year, I think we’ve got a better team than other years. We’ve got more people to handle the ball,” Bunton said. “And we’re bigger too.”

Bunton’s return certainly helps in the size factor. While Easterlin, Sweet and junior Chris Finch are all 6-3 or taller, Bunton is the major physical component in the middle for the Wildcats.

“He’s so much more mature physically. And also mentally — he’s grown up a bunch,” Clovis coach J.D. Isler said of Bunton. “He’s about 220 pounds now and is a big presence inside. I think he’s really going to be a fun player for our fans to watch.

“I think Dominique Easterlin will complement him very well,” Isler said. “I think we’ll be as good as anybody in the state at the four and five positions.”

Others slated to see time at forward include the 6-1 Hita, who can play at a variety of positions, and 5-11 junior John Sweet.

Props, Jones, Phillips and Hita should see much of the action at the guard positions. Isler will also have senior Wendell Belford, who moves up from the junior varsity, junior Jordan Moore and his son Jaden Isler — a ninth-grader at Yucca.

The Wildcats begin play at home against Amarillo Tascosa on Tuesday night.

Part of Clovis’ slate includes two tournaments the Wildcats will host — the eight-team Milk Cow Classic at the end of December and the four-team “Purple Pepper” Shootout in mid-January. Clovis will also play at a tournament in Artesia from Dec. 9-11.

Though District 4-5A sees the departure of defending Class 5A state champ Eldorado, as well as Manzano, the two Albuquerque teams taking their place — Cibola and Sandia — are highly capable of making a run for the title themselves.

Throw perennial power Hobbs into the mix and the district race should rarely have games lacking in excitement.

“It’s interesting. The bad part is that we always seem to get stuck with the most outstanding teams,” Isler said. “Sandia had a good team last year with really good talent. Cibola (which lost in the championship game to Eldorado) was in the state tournament too, so we expect it to be a tough district again.”