. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

While it seems like just yesterday the Bulldog and Lady Bulldog basketball teams were getting their 2015-16 campaigns into gear at the City of Champions Classic, the regular season has come and gone.

The time for preparation is over. Starting today, it counts.

The Artesia High School hoops squads will kick off their District 4-AAAAA slates today against Lovington at Bulldog Pit, and both are looking to put around two months’ worth of hard work and lessons learned into effect.

“I’m excited,” Bulldog head coach Michael Mondragon said today. “I know the boys are excited, too. We’ve had a really good week of practice, and like we told the guys, this is the season that matters.

“It’s 0-0 now. We’ve done a good job to this point of getting ready and improving, and now it’s time to go out and have fun and show what we’ve been working on.”

“I feel like we’re going into district playing our best basketball,” Lady ‘Dog head coach Jeff Houghtaling said. “I think the girls are in great condition, I think our confidence is high, and I think it’s going to be a good race throughout district.”

The Bulldogs will head into tonight’s matchup with a record of 8-9, thrown back off the plus side last weekend by hard-fought losses to Class 6A Carlsbad and Hobbs.

The ‘Dogs played their best quarter of the season to kick off their regular-season finale against the Eagles, outscoring Hobbs 23-14. They’ll be looking to extend that type of play to four quarter tonight against the Wildcats.

“We just want to play hard and impose our will on them for 32 minutes,” said Mondragon. “We need to play consistent, take care of the ball, and I really feel like we have the advantage inside, so we need to use it.

“If we go out and just play hard, I think the score will take care of itself.”

The Lady ‘Dogs stand at 5-14 on the year, a record loaded with close losses, particularly against Class 5A competition.

The Artesia girls came up just short of Ruidoso Saturday, 50-46, but saw improvement from the field, particularly in the perimeter, and are aiming to keep that trend going against the Lady ‘Cats.

“We shot better the last few games, and even though we came up short, I still feel like we’re playing well right now,” said Houghtaling. “We’re just going to do what we’ve been trying to get better at. We’re not going to stray very far from the game plan we’ve been fine tuning up to this point.

“I don’t feel like we have to do anything unique tonight to give ourselves a chance to win.”

The Lady Wildcats stand at 4-11 on the season. They, too, fell to Ruidoso in their final regular-season games, 65-45, after defeating the Lady Warriors in their season opener Dec. 3, 63-41. The Lovington girls also suffered a pair of losses to Carlsbad this year, 51-16 Dec. 15 and 45-38 Jan. 7.

“Lovington is a good team, but I think if we play hard, we have a good chance tonight to start the district with a win,” Houghtaling said. “We know Lovington plays a zone, so we’re going to get a chance to execute some of the things we worked on against Carlsbad and even Ruidoso.

“I know the girls are excited to get this part of the season started, so I expect them to play hard. The pre-district season is the time to polish up the thing you need to do to be successful, and I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”

The Wildcats, meanwhile, are 6-11 on the year and also have a few opponents in common with the ‘Dogs.

Lovington fell to Deming – who defeated the Bulldogs 55-45 Jan. 8 at the Gallup Invitational – Dec. 11, 70-59, and also lost to Capital Jan. 2, 58-37. The Jaguars bested Artesia 63-33 Dec. 19 on the road. On Monday, the ‘Cats came up short of Hobbs, 101-68.

“Lovington is a good team – a lot better than their record shows,” said Mondragon. “They’re athletic, they get up and down the floor, they like to run, and they finish at the rim really well, so we have to make sure we limit their opportunities as far as penetrating and things like that.”

With both coaches confident their teams know what it will take to be successful today, they’re also hoping to see a large home crowd on hand to give the athletes an added edge.

“Every district game this season, it’ll be the boys and the girls together, so we just want to encourage our fans to follow us,” said Houghtaling. “We’re looking forward to a good district season.”

“We’re really hoping to get a good crowd tonight,” said Mondragon. “Our community does such a good job of supporting all the athletic programs, and it would be great to start district at home with a big crowd.

“I know the boys will feed off of that energy, so we encourage everybody to come out and support the girls and boys.”