Monte del Sol Dragons focus on fundamentals
JACONA — The Monte del Sol Dragons are not fighting the weight of expectations this basketball season.
If anything, they are battling their own desire and passion that often leads to a “more is less” approach.
Like shooting 25-footers with a nine-point lead.
Or trying to single handedly drive through a wall of defenders with teammates open.
Or overdribbling to make something happen instead of passing the ball and trusting the offense.
Alfredo Lujan, the Dragon’s fifth-year head coach, said it might appear that the Dragons are letting their own lofty goals affect their play, but it’s more an issue about trust and faith in one another. Lujan said the struggles the Dragons have at times comes from “overtrying.”
“For example, when we’re playing Santa Fe Prep [on Dec. 15, a 67-57 loss], we’re shooting 25-footers — and on the first pass,” Lujan said. “I’m like, ‘That’s not necessary.’ ”
If Monte del Sol (4-3) needs an example of what happens when it trusts Lujan’s system, the first half of the opening-round game of Pojoaque Valley’s Ben Luján Tournament against Santa Fe Indian School on Thursday can be that guide. Monte del Sol rallied from a 14-9 first-quarter deficit with a 9-0 spurt that saw four Dragons score, and all of it came inside the 3-point arc. When Peter Lujan scored on a driving layup with 3:51 left in the second quarter, the Dragons led 18-14.
However, the Braves used their depth and full-court press to wear down Monte del Sol and fashioned a 62-41 win in Ben Luján Gymnasium. The Dragons take on Mesa Vista in the consolation semifinal at 10:30 a.m. Friday, while SFIS plays Bernalillo in a 4:30 p.m. semifinal.
Monte del Sol senior guard Isaiah Salazar felt the first half was an example of how well the team can play.
“That first half, we played real good defense and gave ourselves good opportunities,” Salazar said. “That just gives us an example of how we should play and what to look at when we are looking at film.”
Monte del Sol has shown flashes of its potential over the past couple of years. When coach Lujan took over in 2015, he inherited a group of four freshmen — Salazar, Peter Lujan, Santi Archuleta and Lopez — that he felt could bring the program its first state tournament appearance since 2007.
That finally happened last year, as the Dragons made it as the 16th seed despite finishing last in their district.
The goal this year is to compete for a District 2-2A title and get a home game, although that is a misnomer for the program. Monte del Sol has no home gym and finds itself nomadically bouncing around for practices and games among the Institute of American Indian Art, the Genoveva Chavez Community Center, Fort Marcy complex and Santa Fe Community College.
Despite those challenges, the Dragons have had moments of brilliance, such as dominating New Mexico School for the Deaf, 60-37, in their second game of the season Dec. 4 and beating the Trojans, 52-32, last week. However, this blend of five seniors with five underclassman and an eighth-grader certainly has had its struggles, such as an 81-65 loss to Walatowa in the Nov. 29 season opener.
Archuleta admitted moving the start of winter practices to Nov. 19, which gave the Dragons five days of practices before starting the season, a challenge because they didn’t have as much time to gel as a group. The growing pains show up in games, such as the season opener.
“I believe if we played them now, it would be a much better game,” Archuleta said. “It was a little rattling, but it was also a wake-up call. Like, ‘Come on, we got to get it together now.’ ”
Coach Lujan took the blame for that loss, as he did not anticipate the Cougars’ duo of Cody and Preston Pino combining for 59 points.
“I approached the game with running in mind,” coach Lujan said. “It turns out they had a couple of good guards and they could really shoot the lights out! I felt like, in that game, my strategy was wrong. I take the heat for that loss.”
However, coach Lujan would like to see stronger leadership out of the seniors. With young and inexperienced players looking on, he feels the veterans sometimes exhibit traits of an immature squad.
“I feel like, once in a while, we drop our heads, we get mad, start talking about the refereeing or throwing a tantrum,” Alfredo Lujan said. “The kinds of things that seniors shouldn’t be doing. I’m really looking for an attitude adjustment that will result in true, calm, tranquil leadership rather than that occasional lapse in concentration.”
The seniors, to their credit, recognize that they have had shortcomings in handling those situations poorly, as well as not being a fundamentally sound group at times. “We tend to go away from fundamentals and trying to do things one-on-one,” Salazar said. “We shouldn’t be doing that. We should pass the ball more. If we did that, we would be winning more games.”
When the Dragons put it together, they show a well-balanced attack with five players who can score in bunches. The addition of senior Garrett Madrid, at 6 feet, gives Monte del Sol a solid post player. He had a couple of baskets in the low post in the third quarter that helped keep the Dragons close for a moment, with his last layup keeping them within 38-28 of the Braves with 3:50 left.
It’s just that SFIS took control of the game with three straight 3-pointers that capped a 13-0 run and gave it a 33-22 lead three minutes into the second half. It was a part of a 29-9 scoring run in the quarter that handed SFIS a 51-31 lead. Coach Lujan found a silver lining to the performance.
“Four years ago, when we played them at Indian School’s tournament, we lost to them by 80 [actually, 76-23],” Alfredo Lujan said.