Jessica Russell is one of five Clovis seniors who will play their last home tonight when the top-ranked lady Wildcats host Santa Fe in a first-round state playoff game. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Rick White: CNJ managing editor
A trio of names synonymous with Clovis High girls basketball in recent years— Brittany Blackmon, Aimee Hilburn and Tori Quintana — play the final home game of their stellar careers tonight in a gym in which they’ve lost just one game in three years.
The top-ranked Lady Wildcats (25-2) host No. 16 Santa Fe in the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs.
The tournament shifts to Albuquerque next week for the final three rounds.
“The thing I’ll remember most is the fans,” said Quintana, who was caught off guard when asked her feelings on playing at home one final time. “We have the best fans in the state. I’m really going to miss them.”
Quintana, Hilburn and Blackmon as well as reserves Vanessa O’Neal and Jessica Russell have formed the nucleus of a Clovis team that has gone 82-6 under veteran coach Miles Watters since their sophomore season.
“This is a special group of kids,” Watters said of the five seniors. “It’s not that often that you have a group of kids that have the kind of passion they have for the game.”
Hilburn said she hopes she can keep her emotions in check and play well in her final outing at Rock Staubus Gym.
“I’m going to try to stay focused, stay calm,” said the 6-foot Hilburn, the school’s all-time leader in assists who will also finish among the top 10 scorers. “You want to play good for your hometown and in front of your fans.”
Watters said he expects few problems against Santa Fe (8-19), which finished third in District 1-5A.
Watters said the undersized Lady Demons will likely sit back in a zone to try and take away the inside scoring of the powerful 5-foot-10 Blackmon, who passed for Texas Tech standout Cisti Greenwalt as Clovis’ all-time leader scorer.
“I don’t think we have to worry about any one player,” Watters said. “Hopefully, we can turn up the defensive pressure, and we’ll be in good shape.”
While the contributions of Blackmon, Hilburn and Quintana (the school’s all-time leader in 3-pointers are obvious, Watters had special praise for the unselfish nature of Russell and O’Neal.
“I couldn’t ask for two kids with better attitudes,” Watters said. “It doesn’t matter if they play one minute or 20 minutes, they’re just happy with the playing time they get and are happy to help the team.”
Russell, who has played on the same AAU team as Quintana, Hilburn and Blackmon since the fifth grade, admitted she’s going to be an emotional wreck.
“I think I’ll probably cry,” she said. “It’s going to be the last time playing with these guys at home.
“It’s going to be sad.”