Feature photo: Rio Rancho coach Wally Salata, left, has his Rams back in the state tournament after battling through brutal District 1-5A. (Gary Herron/Rio Rancho Observer)
By Russell Gurule
For Enchantment Sports
Imagine a high school hoops heaven just like college basketball’s Tobacco Road.
A place where Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, and Wake Forest are within a stone’s throw of each other. A place where passion and excitement exude in large amounts each season. Everyone is fighting for the top spot.
Championships are the goal when the balls are rolled out to start every season.
New Mexico’s 5A District 1 is becoming that place for high school hoops within the state. Others may disagree, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that any one of four of the district’s teams could make the state championship game.
The district is composed of Albuquerque’s newest schools — Volcano Vista and Atrisco Heritage Academy — along with longtime classic, Cibola High School. These three are paired with Rio Rancho’s finest; Sue V. Cleveland and Rio Rancho High School.
This may not be Tobacco Road, but you probably could call it “Unser Road.” I’m sure Bobby, Al Sr. and Little Al would be proud of the basketball being played here.
With large, spacious gyms, the music blares and the bands come out to play. The cheerleaders give their best performances, and the student bodies stand the whole game heckling the other team. Fans of all ages can be heard giving the refs their opinion on each call.
You have to come early if you want to see this spectacle. Each game is a rivalry that means something.
To get a perspective of how good this district is, one only has to look at the rankings. According to MaxPreps, Volcano Vista comes in at No. 1 in the state with Cleveland at No. 3, followed by Atrisco Heritage at No. 4. Rio Rancho finishes off this quartet at No. 6.
Cibola, on the other hand, very well may be having its worst season ever. But not to worry; the roster is filled with sophomores and freshmen, which brings intriguing possibilities for the future. Once the Cougars come of age, the district just may get even tougher to win.
The district has already claimed a championship this season with Cleveland overcoming Volcano Vista 71-70 in the title game of the Metro Tournament Crown, in front of a packed house. The Storm added to the trophy case with their resounding 86-70 victory over Hobbs in the Hobbs Holiday tournament championship game.
Rio Rancho also won its own Jalene Berger Allstate Holiday Hoops Classic at the end of 2018 by defeating Hope Christian 73-72 in a nail-biter.
But tournaments in December are not what District 1 plays for each and every season.
Since 2015, when the NMAA created a Class 6A. the district has had at least one representative playing in the state championship game. Atrisco Heritage was runner-up in 2014 in 5A, to which the NMAA has reverted in 2019, eliminating the 6A class.
Just last year, the state championship game featured Cleveland vs. Atrisco with Atrisco going away with the coveted blue trophy.
Rio Rancho and Volcano Vista have also claimed state titles during this run for Unser road. Could this be Cleveland’s year? It would be considered a safe bet for any prognosticator.
Another measure of performance by the district is how well its members perform in the state tournament. Since 2014, the district has had at least one or two representatives in the final four. 2017 was a banner year with Cleveland, Volcano Vista, and Artisco all playing in the final four.
It takes a whole body of work to have a championship season. To win District 1 is like conquering a run through a gauntlet. Eleven district games have been decided by five points or less to go along with three overtime. There was another OT thriller in the district tournament.
Only three games between these top schools have been decided by 10 points or more.
“District 1-5A is the toughest district in the state,” Rio Rancho head coach Wally Salata said. “I expected our district to have four teams in the top five come seeding time. I feel like we have been playing state tournament games since late January. “
The credit for District 1’s success as a whole goes to both the players and coaches among the teams.
Volcano Vista has a ton of guards, with clutch sharpshooters Jake Deatherage and Dion Battle leading the way. The Hawks are talented in the frontcourt with 6-foot-8 Jacob Aragon and 6-6 Terrin Dickey providing rebounding and intimidation.
Volcano Vista is talented from top to bottom, and has several players capable of big nights. Under Brown, the Hawks very well could win their second state title.
Cleveland, however, could be considered the favorite to win it all, thanks to dunk-master Jalen Nunn and Aamer Mohammad, who just might be the fastest player in the state. These two will be leading the Storm in the backcourt. Josh Terry and his high basketball IQ, along with 6-4 sophomore sensation Clayton Watson, man Cleveland’s frontcourt.
The Storm have a talented roster that plays within their roles. Head coach Sean Jimenez is behind the wheel, driving toward another run at the title.
Rio Rancho enters state with the high-scoring tandem of 6-5 seniors David Patterson and Blaine Gallegos.
The rest of the cast includes promising sophomores Vance Rudolph and Christian Lucero. Owen Olney provides a steady presence for this group. Salata will be gearing up his Rams for some upsets as they go for the school’s second state title.
Atrisco Heritage is best described as a buzzsaw on defense. The fast break is an integral part of the Jaguars’ game. Joziah Ramos, one of the district’s top scorers, is capable of launching from any zip code.
Marquis Crawford and Elijah Gaxiola provide the glue that makes this offense go. Keep an eye on DeMarcus Sutphen, who is very capable of making some exciting dunks for the Jaguars.
Head coach Adrian Ortega will be reaching for rarefied air as the Jaguars go for back-to-back state titles.
The seedings are out and the tournament looks to be very strong.
“In this year’s state tournament, there will be eight teams with 20 wins or more, and no team that will be under .500 in the field,” Salata said. “I don’t recall that ever happening before. It should be an exciting state tournament!“
This week, we will find out who is the best. There are outside challengers this year to District 1 – especially second-seeded an unbeaten Las Cruces. But as they say in college basketball, Tobacco Road generally has a say in who is the national champion.
It seems that in the state of New Mexico, Unser Road has that say as well.
Let the madness begin!
Russell Gurule was born and raised in Albuquerque and is a long-time resident. He graduated from Highland High and also attended Hope Christian. Russell is a long-time observer of New Mexico Lobo and high school athletics. Logistics is his day job. Basketball and politics are his passions. To contact Russell with comments of tips, please email EnchantmentSportsNM@gmail.com.