Clovis’ Tigg Bunton goes for the jam over Alamogordo’s Shaun Porteron. Bunton has a string of good posts he must face during district play, including Cibola’s Kasey Cunningham. (CNJ staff photo)
By John Eisel: CNJ sports writer
Realignment didn’t make District 4-5A any easier.
Out went reigning district and state champion Eldorado and Manzano. In came Sandia and state runner-up Cibola, which is currently the top ranked team in Class 5A, according to the Albuquerque Journal coaches’ poll.
Combine those two with No. 2 Clovis and perennial power Hobbs, and the district turns into a gauntlet.
“We’re one of them, if not the toughest (district),” Clovis coach J.D. Isler said. “We could make that argument with four of our teams ranked in the top 10.”
“They’re are going to be some good teams that don’t make the playoffs.”
Only two teams make it out of district and into the playoffs. First-year Sandia coach Adrian Ortega pegged Clovis and Cibola as the favorites, pointing to Wildcats center Tigg Bunton and Cibola forward Kasey Cunningham as the reason.
“They have the two best big men in the state,” Ortega said. “Those guys are just so athletic.”
Isler said the team that plays the best night in and night out will win the district.
“You’re going to see a good team every night,” Isler said. “If we play consistent, we’re going to have a chance to win every game.”
In their first season under coach John Madden, the Cavemen are the only team going into District 4-5A play with a losing record. Carlsbad is also the only team without a player at least 6-4.
The Cavemen spread out their scoring among a few players, including senior guard Andrew Brooks and junior guard Alex Bustos. Brooks is one of nine seniors on the roster.
Clovis’ combination of speed and size has created mismatches against nearly every opponent this season.
Bunton is second in 5A in scoring at 21 points a game and senior Dominique Easterlin adds another 15. They combine to pull down more than 15 rebounds a contest.
Behind a relentless defense, the Wildcats have held opponents to under 60 points in all but two games this season.
Senior point guard Tizrick Phillips leads 5A with 5.7 assists a game.
Cibola and Clovis are eerily similar and not just in mascot.
Each has a dominant big man who is being recruited by Division I schools. Both team like to run on offense and press on defense.
Cunningham is scoring 18.7 points a game and pulling down 13.9 rebounds a game, good for third and first respectively in 5A. He’s being heavily recruited by New Mexico.
The Cougars aren’t all Cunningham, however. Senior point guard Roman Andrade transferred from St. Pius and is making the transition with little difficulty, averaging more than 18 points and five assists a game.
Like always, the Eagles will press and run with their speed.
“They try to get you to take shots that you don’t want to take,” Isler said.
However, the Eagles lack size with no player taller than 6-4. They prefer to spread the ball around and shoot from the perimeter.
“We really need to take advantage of our size inside against them,” Isler said.
Their main offensive threat is senior guard B.J. Meridyth, who leads the team in scoring with more than 18 points a game.
“They can beat anybody in Hobbs at any given time,” Ortega said. “They’re always going to be tough.”
Sandia has had to barnstorm through the state as the floor in their gym had to be fixed due to flood damage.
“It hasn’t effected us much.” Ortega said. “It’s made us mentally strong.”
Ortega is familiar with District 4-5A. He was an assistant coach with Eldorado before joining the Matadors. Ortega said chemistry and flow on offense has improved as the season has progressed in a patient system that relies on cutting and screening.
Sandia’s top offensive threat is 6-5 post Nate Kanyinda. In his last game, Kanyinda scored 25 points against Del Norte and is averaging 17 points a game and eight rebounds.