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Montezuma-Cortez girls basketball primed for breakout year

Montezuma-Cortez senior Savannah Haselroth brings the basketball upcourt against Monument Valley in the Jerry Richardson Memorial Invitational at Shiprock High School. Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal
M-CHS kicks off season in Shiprock

SHIPROCK – The 2022-23 Panthers basketball team knew how close they were to putting together a really special season.

They’re hoping that their patience will pay off.

A senior-laden Panthers squad takes to the floor this season with confidence and high ambitions, bringing back almost their entire varsity roster from a 5-16 season full of close calls. For fifth-year head coach Brad Wright, with the right combination of improvements, the Panthers may very well find themselves right in the mix in a very tightly contested 4A/3A Intermountain League this winter.

If their season opening tournament is any indicator, a black-and-orange tsunami may be on the horizon. The Panthers battled well against Utah small school power Monument Valley in their opening contest of the Jerry Richardson Memorial Tournament in Shiprock, falling to a narrow 48-42 defeat – a team that had bested the Panthers by over 30 a year earlier.

M-CHS responded with a statement the following morning, blasting Shiprock Northwest, 75-25, their highest scoring output in a single game since 2010. In their tournament finale, the Panthers fell to a tough Navajo Prep squad, 65-27, but had plenty of positives to draw from in their opening trio of contests.

The Panthers (1-2) boast a roster chock-full of upperclassmen, led by senior co-captains Savannah Haselroth and Markylla Jones. The tandem return as two of the team’s top scorers, joining junior Taylor Whited as key figures looking to lead the Panthers this winter.

“We had a lot of returning varsity players putting in work beginning in June,” said Wright, “which helped our girls continue to connect on the floor – and they’re starting to see the potential of where we can go.”

Montezuma-Cortez junior Taylor Whited crosses midcourt against Monument Valley (UT) in a game in the Jerry Richardson Memorial Invitational at Shiprock High School. Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal

M-CHS hopes that their perimeter game continues to generate openings for the interior game, where Jones, classmate Kayce Tom and junior Kalea Ogo look to use their shooting touch to finish around the rim.

Junior Cyriah Begay and senior Trenity Tillahash lead a group of guards that Wright hopes will shine on both ends of the floor, as M-CHS started the season receiving contributions from their entire bench to keep up an intense defense.

“Changing the tempo with the full court, setting up some easy buckets is always a shot in the arm,” said Wright of the way his team will look to build confidence this year.

Montezuma-Cortez junior Cyriah Begay shoots a 3-pointer in a game against Monument Valley (UT) in the Jerry Richardson Memorial Invitational at Shiprock High School. Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal

While Whited’s 12 points and Haselroth’s 11 led the way for the Panthers in a second half charge that nearly erased a double-figure deficit against Monument Valley, a balanced scoring effort with nine different Panthers scoring helped energize the belief that this year’s team will lean on the whole unit as they seek their first winning season in over two decades.

The same pairing accounted for 30 points in the victory over Shiprock Northwest, while Cyriah Begay enjoyed a 13-point outburst and Jones added eight. Ten different Panthers tallied points in the win, as Haselroth earned all-tournament recognition from her three double-figure scoring outings.

“We’ve been able to add some things to our system leading up to the season,” added Wright, with the familiarity that his players already have returning the floor, “and while we didn’t execute as well as we’d like, they’re hungry to get back out and do those things better the next time out.”

M-CHS looks forward to meetings with San Juan on Tuesday, Dec. 12 and Bloomfield two days later to kick off their home schedule. A road trip to Telluride (Dec. 15) and a contest against Kirtland Central will lead the Panthers into the holiday break, before returning to action with IML play in early January.