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

Four months’ worth of effort, preparation, highs, lows, devastating defeats, and thrilling victories have all led up to this.

The Class 5A State Tournament is upon the Artesia High School basketball program, and with their most successful regular and district season, and highest seed in over a decade behind them, the Bulldogs are looking to keep the magic flowing this weekend.

The Bulldogs rode the merits of a 19-7 campaign and both regular-season and District Tournament titles to a No. 5 seed in the 5A state tourney. But with that came a rather Groundhog Day-esque outcome: a first-round game against 12th-ranked Lovington at 7 p.m. Saturday at Bulldog Pit.

Competing against an opponent you’ve defeated four times over the course of the regular season – twice by narrow margins and, most recently, for the D4 Tourney championship just one week ago – can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, the prep work has been done and done again. On the other, the possibility for a letdown exists.

Head coach Michael Mondragon, however, does not anticipate the latter being a problem.

“Our guys know this is the state basketball tournament now,” said the coach. “Even though this is a familiar opponent, we know we’ve got to come out and play. All the teams in the state tournament are good. They’re there for a reason, and you’ve got to make sure you play your best four quarters of basketball. If you don’t, you’re just giving yourself an early exit.

“Our guys are focused on the task at hand, and we know we have to worry about first winning the first quarter, then the first half, and then the whole game. We have to come out with energy, and I know these boys will be ready for the challenge.”

The boys in orange have also overcome their fair share of adversity during the course of the season and have joined the Lady Bulldogs in delivering some milestones now seen in years by the AHS programs.

As such, Mondragon believes the hard part is over. What’s left is to make sure all of that experience translates into peak play on the court.

“We’re just fine-tuning everything at this point in the season,” said the coach. “We know what we have to do; now we just have to make sure we’re doing it to the best of our ability – making sure we take care of the ball, making sure we rebound, making sure we guard, and making sure we just focus on us.

“It’s been a really, really good week of practice for us. The guys are focused, the seniors are ready to lead, and the boys having been chomping at the bit since Sunday. Now we just have to make sure we’re ready for what Lovington is going to do.”

Whatever that may be, Mondragon feels the Bulldogs will be primed to counter if they stay within themselves.

“I could see (Lovington) coming out maybe running more zone, doing something different with their defense, but like we talked about as a staff, we’re 19-7. We’re the regular-season district champs and also the district champs of the tournament, so obviously, what we’ve been doing has been working.

“We’ve just got to play Bulldog basketball and make sure we come out with fire, energy and fight, and if we do those things, we’re going to be fine.”

Having the home-court advantage for a state tournament game is also a powerful variable, and Mondragon urges Artesians to turn out in force Saturday to support the ‘Dogs in their bid to advance to the Class 5A quarterfinal round. There, they would face the winner of No. 4 Capital vs. No. 13 Miyamura at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in Albuquerque.

“I can’t reiterate enough – we’re the City of Champions,” said the coach. “These boys have really worked hard all year long to give ourselves a home game for this state tournament, and I’d really love to see that Pit packed. We’ve been close a couple of times this year, but I want to encourage everybody – grandmas, grandpas, cousins, boys and girls of all ages – to come out and pack the Pit for these boys.

“They’re hard workers and they’re fun to watch, so it’s going to be a good game Saturday, and hopefully, we’ll take care of business and get ready to go to Albuquerque next week.”