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Pirate girls 5-1 to start post-holiday schedule

Entering into the post-Christmas break portion of the season, with a 5-1 record, the Pirate girls’ basketball team is looking good for post-season play but needs to prepare for two hurdles along the way to the playoffs.

Looking ahead, coach Wes Lewis said he sees Monte Vista, Cortez and Bayfield as the toughest opponents facing the Pirates over the next two months.

However, when asked how the team will answer those challenges, Lewis replied, “This early in the season, we focus on what we’re doing and not on what other teams are doing.”

The Pirates come out of the long break on Jan. 8 with a road game in Salida against the Spartans. While the Pirates sank the Spartans 45-36 in their last match, with Pagosa outscoring Salida in three of four quarters, Pagosa struggled in the second quarter, scoring on just a single basket.

It was that low-scoring second quarter that troubled Lewis and something the Pirates addressed during holiday break practices.

“Right now, for the most part, we’re working on positioning and shooting,” Lewis said regarding the focus of his team’s practice regimen.

The Pirates will stay on the road, traveling to Ignacio Jan. 12 for their only match against the Bobcats this season. 2A Ignacio provided no substantial challenge to Pagosa last year and the 1-2 Bobcats don’t appear to bring anything new to the court this year.

Following what should be an easy victory in Ignacio, the Pirates move on to face what could be their toughest challenge of the season. Traveling to Monte Vista Jan. 16 for Pagosa’s first Intermountain League match, the Pirates will meet a 7-1 team that fields a quick, aggressive offense led by lightning fast Mandy Aguilar (averaging 15.5 points per game). Hot from the 3-point line as well as within the key, Aguilar also manages to swipe the ball with no uncertain prowess.

Since the Pirates succeeded in shutting down Salida’s standout Sammi Gentile on Dec. 19 (holding her to just two points in the game) and while the Spartans had ample backup to counteract Gentile’s immobilization, Monte Vista doesn’t appear to field as much backup — at least, at first glance. With Aguilar out for three games in mid-December, Monte Vista still managed to win those games without their star player.

Nonetheless, Monte Vista fell 46-39 to the Buena Vista Demons (with Aguilar in the mix) on Dec. 18 — a team Pagosa beat in their Dec. 4 season opener. Still, an away game in Monte Vista should prove to be a tough match for the Pirates (who will host Monte Vista Feb. 6).

The Pirate’s return home Jan. 19 to again host the Cortez Panthers, the only team to beat Pagosa. After losing 63-61 in overtime to the Panthers Dec. 12 (during the championship round of the Wolf Creek Classic), the Pirates will have to adjust to the Panther’s aggressive (and effective) full-court press — the Pirate’s Achille’s Heel in that loss. Furthermore, the Pirate’s will have to balance a defensive front against the fast game played by the Panther’s Yanito twins (Keeley and Kelia, especially Keeley’s prowess with the 3-point shot), as well as two effective forwards in Jenna Schaak and Shelby Janz.

While not invincible, the Cortez Panthers are the team to beat this season — after Monte Vista.

Hosting the Centauri Falcons Jan. 23 for a second conference game, the Pirates will face a team with a legacy (coach Dave Forster, in his 10th year with the Falcons, scored his record 300th career win on Dec. 10) but little to suggest a powerhouse team. At 4-3, and with losses to somewhat weak teams, the Falcons have struggled with inconsistent play and a spotty defense. The Pirates will travel to La Jara Feb. 12 for a rematch against the Falcons.

Staying home for their match against league rival Bayfield Wolverines, the Pirates would do well not to underestimate their small and young 5-2 rivals. The Wolverines play a balanced game and, while taking some losses earlier in the season, Bayfield has hit its stride during the last four games (including beating the Miyamura, N.M. Patriots 49-37 on Dec. 5 — the only team to beat the Cortez Panthers).

“I’m not surprised,” Lewis said regarding the Wolverine’s performance over their last four games. “They had a JV that was undefeated last year and they’ve got three returning varsity players.”

While the Pirates hold an advantage in experience, stature and with stats, Pagosa dismisses an often surprising Bayfield rival to their own folly. Pagosa will meet the Wolverines in Bayfield Feb. 19 for a final shot at their rivals.

The Pirates return to the road Jan. 30 to face the hapless 0-6 Mean Moose in Alamosa. The Pirates trounced the Moose 42-25 Dec. 5 in Buena Vista for Alamosa’s season opener and the Mean Moose have not been able to gain a victory since. There’s no reason to believe the Pirates will face a serious challenge in Alamosa.

Likewise looking hapless, the 1-7 Farmington N.M. Scorpions should provide wins for the Pirates, during both a Feb. 4 home game and at the Pirate’s regular-season finale Feb. 20 in Farmington. The Pirates squashed the Scorpions twice last year and nothing about Farmington’s record or roster suggests that this year will be any different.

Finally, a Feb. 9 road game against the 4-1 2A Bluejays in Mancos should be little more than a scrimmage for the Pirates. The Pirates soundly defeated the Bluejays last year and there’s no reason to believe that history won’t repeat itself this season. An interesting game to watch will be the Bluejays’ Jan. 15 match against the Ignacio Bobcats in Mancos.

Fortunately, the Pirates hold several advantages going into post-break season, primarily a 5-1 momentum. Mary Brinton, with a 22 points-per-game average and 31 rebounds, is one of the state’s best all-around 3A players (behind Estes Park’s Kimmy Hansen), providing the Pirates with an intimidation factor that can be daunting. Breezy Bryant provides a formidable foil for opponents when teams try to neutralize Brinton; hot from the 3-point line and at the free-throw line (83 percent from the line), Bryant is also strong on defense with a team-leading eight steals. The team’s two forwards, Megan Bryant and Magan Kraetsch, provide sturdy protection on set plays while providing a defensive wall that has helped keep most teams outside the key this season. Finally, point guard Victoria Espinosa has exhibited the speed, agility, intelligence and ball-handling skills required of the team’s floor general.

The downside is the lack of balance on the starting five. With Brinton and Breezy carrying the lion’s share of the Pirates’ scoring, Pagosa needs to strengthen the shooting of other players in the paint. As a team, an unremarkable 64 percent from the free-throw line needs to improve.

“We try to be a 70 percent team,” Lewis said. “Mary and Breezy are doing their part, but we’ve got to get the other girls to do what they’re capable of.”

Overall, the Pirate’s advantages far outweigh their shortcomings and, if the players respond to those weaknesses and defeat Monte Vista and Cortez in the coming weeks, the Pirates should be poised to advance well into the post-season.

jim@pagosasun.com