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In years past, the fresh start that marks the “second season” was often a welcome sight for the Artesia High School basketball teams.

If plagued by middling regular-season records and losses to same-class opponents, the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs could hang their hats with new hope on a solid showing in District 4-AAAAA seeing them into the state playoffs.

But although these remain the games that really count, they’re not the be all and end all for the AHS squads this season. With solid records of 13-6 on the boys’ side, 12-6 on the girls’, and a bevy of intra-classification victories under their belts, what the ‘Dogs and Lady ‘Dogs have proven in 2016-17 is that they’ll be more contender than challenger heading into this year’s gamut that is D4 play.

“This district’s going to be tough,” Bulldog head coach Michael Mondragon said today. “Any time you get these four teams and put them in a hat, you don’t know what’s going to happen. “We just have to come out and make sure we play our type of basketball.”

Lady Bulldog head coach Jeff Houghtaling concurs.

“I think we have a really good district on the girls’ side,” said the coach. “These are really tough teams. Roswell High is ranked No. 1, Goddard is in the middle around five or six, we’re at eight or nine, and Lovington isn’t far behind.

“For the most part, our district is a really seasoned district. Roswell High, Goddard and Lovington are mostly carried by their seniors. We’re probably the youngest and least experienced team in the district. We’ve had a good season up to this point, and I think our kids are pretty seasoned for that fact, but we’re not senior-loaded.”

Both sets of Artesia cagers will kick off their district campaigns today in Lovington, with the girls competing at 5:30 p.m. and the boys at 7 p.m.

On the boys’ side, the Wildcats stand at 10-9 on the year with a few common opponents in the mix.

Lovington fell to annual power Capital 67-50 Nov. 26, as did the Bulldogs Dec. 17, 62-55. Both teams were also tripped up by Class 6A Hobbs, the ‘Cats by a final of 74-54 and the ‘Dogs 65-53. Lovington lost to Carlsbad – with whom Artesia split 46-41 and 46-47 – 46-36
Dec. 28 and beat Los Alamos – whom Artesia topped 56-44 Jan. 13 – 53-49, and the Wildcats also edged out Alamogordo 69-66 in overtime Jan. 24.

“They play extremely hard,” Mondragon said of the ‘Cats. “They’re quick, they’re athletic, they’ve got some kids that can really get up and jump, and they do some things that can really cause some fits if you don’t play good defense.

“They’re a really good basketball team, and it’s going to be a battle in the first district game on their court. We just have to be ready, and we are. We had a good week of practice, and we’re ready to go out and compete.”

Mondragon says two key ingredients will need to be present tonight in order for the Runnin’ ‘Dogs to be successful.

“We have to play great defense, and we have to rebound the ball,” said the coach. “If we come out and play like we’re capable for four quarters, take care of offensive and defensive rebounding, I really like our chances.

“Those are two things we’ve really, really worked on this week, and we also just need to come out, play hard, and not worry about the mistakes, the crowd, the officials, all the things we can’t control but just play Bulldog basketball for four quarters.”

The Lady Wildcats, meanwhile, are 8-12 on the year.

They fell – as has literally everyone – to Carlsbad 39-17 Nov. 28, Hobbs – to whom the Lady ‘Dogs came up short 70-42 in the Alamogordo Invitational championship – 61-36 Dec. 19 and 57-28 Jan. 29, and Portales – who topped Artesia 56-29 Jan. 3 – 42-36.

Artesia and Lovington share wins over Capital, Ruidoso, Santa Teresa, and Alamogordo.

“Tonight is going to be a battle,” said Houghtaling. “If we come out and shoot the ball and don’t have a lot of turnovers, I think we have a really good shot. But Lovington is really good. They’re really long, and they put a lot of ball pressure on teams.”

Next week will come home stands for the AHS teams against Roswell High (14-4 boys, 16-4 girls) Tuesday and Goddard (9-10 boys, 14-6 girls) Friday, and the squads in orange will begin the second round Feb. 10 against Lovington at Bulldog Pit.

Those home games could prove to be crucial in the long run, and both coaches hope to see enthusiastic crowds turn out to support their athletes, not only at the Pit but on the road, as well.

“Going in, our plan is to defend our home court as best we can and try to steal a game or two on the road,” Houghtaling said. “I’m excited but nervous, as well, and I think the girls are feeling the same way. We haven’t won a district game in the last two years, and the girls are real aware of that. Their expectations are high. We just want to play well. Our record is much-improved this year. I think we’ve come a long way, and folks who’ve watched us the last two seasons compared to this year see it’s pretty apparent we’ve gotten a lot better.

“We always have great fan support during district, so we’re excited about that. The thing I love probably the most about our district games is that we play with the boys every night, so that gives our fans the chance to really come out and rally around both teams, and they do a good job of that. Especially next week, those are going to be big games for everybody, so we’re really going to need all the support we can get to take advantage of our home court. We hope to have a good, rowdy crowd there, hope to see a lot of students, and I think it’s going to be a really exciting district season for both the girls and the boys.”

“Everybody’s 0-0 now, everybody’s fighting for their lives,” said Mondragon. “We just have to worry about us – execute and play hard, work these teams for 32 minutes, and if we do that, we’ll be fine.

“I couldn’t be happier with the season up to now. We’re 13-6, and that’s by far the best we’ve ever been at this point, but now all that doesn’t matter. We use all those games to help us get better, and we’re ready. Like we told the boys, now it’s time to go start getting after it, and we’re looking forward to the challenge. We’ve put ourselves in great position in pre-district, and now we have to take care of district, and hopefully we’ll have a great crowd tonight and good crowds as we continue on.”

The AHS Basketball Boosters are also still selling raffle tickets for a 2015 Ford F-150 4×2 pickup at a cost of $20 each.

The drawing will be held on Pack the Pit night, Feb. 10, and ticket holders need not be present to win. Tickets may be purchased from any basketball parent, at George Gandy Insurance, or by contacting Christie Harris at 513-6017 or Candida Gonzales at 719-306-5167, and all proceeds benefit the AHS basketball programs.