By Kevin Wilson
CNJ staff writer
The fairest expectation for the Clovis Wildcats this year may be that it’s tough to know just what to expect.
With the Wildcats set to host Rio Rancho tonight to open the season, third-year coach Matt King knows that Class 5A, and Clovis, has a lot of questions about the Wildcats, who sustained heavy graduation losses after finishing as the Class 5A runnerup.
“Understandably; we lost nine seniors last year,” King said. “We’ve got a lot of kids who haven’t stepped on a varsity floor. We know what the expectations are outside our locker room, but we know what the expectations are inside this locker room. We’re really excited about this team.”
There’s little idea what to expect from the Wildcats, heading into its first game since 2009 without D.J. Blackmon or John Dawson (now a freshman at Marquette). The players who remain insist the trademarks of the team will be an uptempo offense, an active defense and a focus to improve over the season on the boards.
“We’ve got to play more uptempo than we did last year,” senior guard Willie McCray said. “We’ve got long, athletic people. We’ve got to use that to our advantage.”
McCray comes back, along with guard D.D. Egbert, forward Traivon Sopila — and eventually senior guard Kamal Cass, who expects to be recovered from a knee injury by late December. After that, it’s a group of post players King calls talented while acknowledging they’re unproven.
Starting with Rio Rancho, and into the District 4-5A schedule, King expects each night to be a challenge with its inexperience.
“We have to be really good defensively; we have no option,” King said. “The team we had last year had a margin for error. We have to be great defensively. Second, we have to be relentless on the glass. If we defend and rebound, and we get to the paint offensively and take care of the basketball, we have a chance to be really good.
“We’re not going to be as good (against Rio Rancho) as we will be (later this season), I can promise you that. But we’re going to improve.”
Egbert, who played limited minutes last season, said the biggest thing he learned watching from the bench is you could tell the difference between the possessions where teams worked their hardest and the ones where they didn’t.
“You’ve got to be focused and play hard every possession,” Egbert said. “In high school basketball, nothing comes easy.”
King said a lot of 5A will find themselves just like Clovis, relying on guys seeing their name on a varsity roster for the first time. Between the Wildcats, state champ Las Cruces, Eldorado, La Cueva, and Hobbs, King figures four dozen roster spots are going to first-time varsity players.
He’s already seen the effect in scouting this week, with a nailbiter between Rio Rancho and Valley, and an Albuquerque High-Sandia matchup that came down to what King felt was a missed call.
“What you’re going to find and see throughout the state is a lot of really close games, and a lot of teams 1-15 who can beat each other on any given night,” King said. “(Tuesday) night was a great example in Albuquerque. Because there’s not crazy star power, with (Bryce) Alford or (Cullen) Neal or a Dawson or a Blackmon, you’re going to see a lot games that are really close. You might see some good team basketball.”
As far as surprising teams, King said the coaching staff and the players have thought mostly about living up to the standards of Clovis basketball, and figure the rest will take care of itself. Each game is one more lesson for February, when district play comes around in a season where district championships will weigh huge in seeding.
“Our district is going to be no joke,” King said. “No matter what we do in the next 22 games, I feel like top to bottom our district is the best in the state. It’s going to be a war. We’ve got a huge next few months to get ready.”
No. Name Pos. Ht. Yr.
2 Marquese Gaither G 5-9 Jr.
3 Kamal Cass G 5-10 Sr.
4 D.D. Egbert G 5-8 Sr.
10 Willie McCray G 5-11 Sr.
20 Brandon Brewer G 5-10 Sr.
22 Kaine Bender G 6-0 Jr.
30 Justin Henderson F 6-4 Sr.
32 Logan Cole F 6-3 Jr.
33 Roland Chavez F 6-3 So.
34 Traivon Sopila F 6-1 Sr.
40 Tomas Acune F 6-3 Jr.
44 Devin Roberts F 6-5 So.
Coach: Matt King (3rd year at Clovis, 42-17, 49-38 career). Assistant coaches: Scott Robinson, Casey Pack, Corey Pickett, Scott Schumpert.
30 — Rio Rancho, 7 p.m.
7 — Mayfield (at ENMU), 8 p.m.; 13 — Sandia, 7 p.m.; 14 — Manzano, 7 p.m.; 20 — at Portales, 7 p.m.; 21 — at Artesia, 7 p.m.; 26 — St. Michael’s (SW Dairy Farmers Classic); 27 — Abilene (SW Dairy Farmers Classic); 28 — TBA (SW Dairy Farmers Classic).
3 — at Las Cruces Centennial, 7 p.m.; 4 — at Las Cruces, 5 p.m.; 7 — Canyon, Texas, 7 p.m.; 9 — at Espanola Valley, 7 p.m.; 11 — Onate, 5 p.m.; 14 — at Goddard, 7 p.m.; 17 — Cleveland, 7 p.m.; 18 — Valley, 7 p.m.; 24 — at La Cueva, 7 p.m.; 25 — at Eldorado, 5 p.m.; 31 — at Hope Christian, 7 p.m.
4 — Lovington, TBA; 7 — Hobbs, 7 p.m.-x; 11 — at Carlsbad, 7 p.m.-x; 14 — Roswell, 7 p.m.; 18 — Carlsbad, 7 p.m.-x; 21 — at Hobbs, 7 p.m.-x
x-Denotes District 4-5A games.