By Kevin Wilson
There are two things that are clear for boys basketball in District 4-3A.
The Lovington Wildcats are the favorite. That, and being the favorite doesn’t mean a lot in 4-3A.
“I’ve been in this district long enough to know that you don’t overlook or count anybody out,” New Mexico Military Institute coach Kevin Jones said. “District play is a different game, it’s a different level. Anybody in this district can come out on top.”
Most expect Lovington (16-3) to be the one on the top when all is said and done. The Wildcats came only a few free throws short of defeating St. Michael’s for the 3A crown last year, and senior point guard Jawaan Payne leads the effort to get that final win.
“They return a Division-I point guard in Jawaan Payne, and including him, they return three starters,” Portales coach Mark Gallegos said. “They should be the favorites because of the amount of experience they have.”
District 4-3A play begins tonight with Portales (5-11) playing at Ruidoso. The Rams will also be on the road Friday at Lovington. Gallegos said the Rams got the toughest draw to start district play, but a split or sweep could put them in control.
“I just think we have to start playing really consistent,” said Gallegos, whose team has been idle for a week. “I think if we’ll put four quarters together and just play our game and control the game for four quarters, we’ll be fine.”
Controlling the tempo is the main objective for Portales, a patient team that tries to keep the scores in the 40s.
“I think that’s important for those guys to (dictate tempo) to be successful,” Lovington coach Rick Black said. “I think the degree that they do that will be the degree of success that they have.”
The Rams failed to do that when they played a week ago, and the Goddard Rockets stole a 40-39 win in Portales. After the loss to Goddard, one of three squads to beat Lovington, Gallegos said that District 4-3A was the toughest from top to bottom — “I don’t care what anybody says,” he added.
It’s an opinion the rest of the district is more than happy to back up.
“The coaches in the district, excluding myself, are very good coaches,” Ruidoso coach Billy Page said. “The athletes are extraordinary. There are some good districts in 3A but as far as from top to bottom, Mark Gallegos was right on the money.”
After a pair of losing seasons, the Warriors (11-5) seem to have found their niche. They have four starters 6-foot-2 or taller and get double-figure efforts from Auston Beier and Patrick Valliant.
“They’re big and they’re very athletic,” Gallegos said of the Warriors. This Ruidoso team, they’ve been together for two years. They expect to be there right at the end — they feel like this is their year.”
The Warriors are on an eight-game streak coming into district play, but Page still expects the road to district supremacy to go through Lovington.
“They’re the real deal,” Page said. “They’ve got the athletes. But they are human. That gives the rest of us in the district hope that we can catch them on a bad night.”
Black realizes the target is on his team’s back every time it steps out on the floor. The Wildcats’ success will ultimately depend on how they accept that challenge.
“Sometimes they respond positively and sometimes they haven’t,” Black said. “Sometimes we have been prepared and sometimes we haven’t.”
And then there are the NMMI Colts, who bring an element of mystery to the table. Up to this point, the Colts (4-11) have been trying to replace 6-foot-6 Max LeBaron and guard Tres Segovia. Their record indicates they haven’t been as successful as Jones would like.
“It’s kind of hard to fill those shoes,” Jones said. “We’ve got a couple of kids that play pretty good in the post and we had a couple of perimeter players join us after Christmas.
“We don’t have that one offensively explosive guy. It’s just kind of everybody.”