Uncle and niece will try to win championship in final run together
A year of growth and experience can be beneficial in just about any life situation.
As for the Peñasco High School girls basketball team, they’re hoping a year of growth and maturity — plus additional senior leadership — can help carry them to make a return to the Class 2A state championship game, and this time, come up with a victory to hoist the blue trophy.
After finishing off the district 5-2A tournament championship with a 63-42 win over Mora High School on March 1 at Jicarita Gymnasium, the Lady Panthers (24-3) received the No. 2 seed in the state tournament, and will began their quest at 6 p.m., Friday when they host No. 15 McCurdy Charter School in the first round.
Last season, Peñasco pushed through the bracket as the No. 3 seed to make the championship game at Dreamstyle Arena–The Pit, but were clipped by Fort Sumner/House High School in a 49-38 defeat.
“Last year when we made that run, we took it one game at a time and all of a sudden, we were in the championship game,” Peñasco head coach Gilbert Mascareñas said. “It all happened so fast, but this year the girls have thought about it and they’re going in confident, but not over confident because a lot of the teams from 3A last year have dropped down to 2A this year.”
Last year’s Lady Panthers graduated just one senior in Estrella Gonzales, and this year they have benefited from the senior leadership of Alaska Lopez and four-time All-District player and Second-Team All-Stater from a season ago in Bianca Contreras.
Contreras — the niece of Mascareñas and finalist for valedictorian at Peñasco — said last year’s experience at state will no doubt help prepare the team for their second go-round this year.
“Before last year, we had never even had our taste of state,” Contreras said. “This year, we’re going to come in strong, we know what we have to do and we set our goals. A lot of the teams last year that were there had already had their appearances and we were first-timers, so I think it will really help us this year knowing what to expect and how to play with heart and go strong the whole way.”
Mascareñas said he’s seen a shift in the intensity and mindset of his niece as of late as she nears the end of her high school basketball career. In the early parts of the season and around the midway point, Contreras steadily and quietly facilitated the ball and led the team in assists like a point guard is supposed to, but her numbers have exploded in the scoring column as of late. She has averaged 15.1 points per game over the last 10 and led the team on many of those occasions.
“I think she has been seeing more of a finality as the season has gone by and she is playing every game like it is her last,” Mascareñas said. “If that means scoring more, then that is what she will do. She is always the final player at the gym and always the last to leave. She’s been my vocal leader and captain for three years in-a-row and is probably the fiercest competitor I have ever coached.”
Contreras said her increase in points has simply been based on what other teams’ defenses are giving her, because she still looks for other options before herself.
“Coach always explains a, ‘We before me mentality,’ so I’ll always look to set up Adrianna (Tafoya) — the other point guard — or I’ll look to set up my big girl Carly (Gonzales) and all my other teammates first. I’ll always try to get them a shot before myself, but if I see a lane, I’m going to take it because I know I can be unstoppable.”
When comparing Peñasco to the other top seeds in No. 1 Texico High School and No. 3 Pecos High School, the sharpshooting of Tafoya will be big, but Carly Gonzales may be the biggest piece of the puzzle that gives Peñasco a chance to win it all.
The junior post took on double and triple-team defenses throughout district play, and those aggressive defensive tactics have helped Contreras and the other guards become more involved by simply taking what’s given to them.
“That made us feel like we (guards) had to step up and do something,” Contreras said. “We have an inside game, but we also have an outside game. We have very talented guards and a talented center and the thing about Carly — she’s so talented in every sport — If we go in strong and miss a shot, she’s always there for the cleanup and our backup. She’s the backbone of our team.”
Peñasco hasn’t been tested since they lost to Pecos, 57-54, in the final of the Northern Rio Grande Tournament on Jan. 5. They will ride a 15-game winning streak into the state tournament and have defeated their opponents during that span by an average of 34.6 points, while scoring 66.8 points per game.
Despite the recent lack of competition, the team can sure lean their heads on wins over Santa Fe Indian School, Cimarron, Bernalillo and Dulce, and even in losses to Pecos and Class 4A’s No. 4 seed in Pojoaque Valley High School.
If the Lady Panthers can push their 15-game winning streak to 19, then they will earn he right to call themselves champions.
“Winning a championship would be just the highlight to my life, probably,” Contreras said. “Last year, I had always said my number one dream was to run down the ramp at the Pit and I got that. Now, I just have to complete the second part of my dream, which is finishing and winning a state championship.”
That dream wasn’t always the case for Contreras, who credited her uncle and mother for introducing her to the game in the third grade when she began playing on an all-boys team.
Contreras said she cried day-after-day going to practice and “hated” everything about the game. Mascareñas was hard on his niece, but only because he saw the potential she had. He’s coached her since the fifth grade.
“I used to push her so hard and she even quit on me three or four times,” Mascareñas said. “I had a talk with her and told her I was gonna push her to her limits because I knew she didn’t have a lot of confidence, but once she started doing good in games, that confidence came and she started to understand why I pushed her here, or pushed her there. She became the leader and spearhead of all the summer programs and tournaments, always being the first one to call me to tell me we need to go to this tournament or that tournament.”
It’s been a long ride together for the two, and Mascareñas will have four games more, at the most, to push his niece one last time, ideally ending in a state championship.