Clovis-based team preparing for trip to AAU nationals

By Dave Wagner

CLOVIS — Regina Downing doesn’t think she’ll have to whip her team into a frenzy for its opener in the AAU national 15-and-under girls basketball tournament next week in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The Clovis Lady Wildcats, seeded second in their six-team pool, face the top-seeded New Hampshire Stars at 8:30 a.m. (EDT) on July 17. The Stars knocked the Lady Wildcats out of last year’s 14-and-under nationals, handing them their second loss in double-elimination bracket play.

“I’m a little nervous, but I think we can beat them,” Lady Wildcats guard Jessica Russell said of facing a relatively familiar foe. “We need to be able to handle the ball against pressure. If we do that, I think we’ll do good.”

Downing, a Clovis High girls assistant coach, said severe foul problems led to her team’s demise in last year’s AAU event in Tennessee.

“They’ve put us out the last two years,” she said of the Stars. “Hopefully, we won’t be in foul trouble this year and we’ll be able to get them.

“When you lose four of your five starters (to fouls), it’s tough.”

The Lady Wildcats, made up primarily of Clovis High players, won’t have the services of point guard Tori Quintana for the nationals. She underwent knee surgery last month, but will make the trip.

“She’s going through some therapy right now and doing some good things,” Downing said.

“Tori usually handles the ball 90 percent of the time and gets us into the offense. Now everybody’s having to handle the ball, but the kids have stepped up and done some good things.”

Other Clovis members of the team include Russell, Aimee Hilburn, Tori Northcutt, Brittany Blackmon, Ebony Bunton and Vanessa O’Neal. All will be juniors except Bunton, who is entering her freshman year at Marshall Junior High. Many of the girls have played on the team since it started.

Also playing are Morgan Hill of Portales, and three girls from the Albuquerque area.

“We did really good the year before last in Florida,” said Hill, a 6-foot post player. “Last year wasn’t so good, but I think if we work hard we’ll be successful.”

Hill, in her third year with the squad, said playing with her high school rivals in the summertime does nothing but sharpen her game.

“When I first came up here they accepted me really well,” she said. “When I play against them they’re our big rivals, but the girls are really nice.”

The Clovis team will leave on Wednesday for North Carolina. The Lady Wildcats qualified for the national tournament by winning their fifth consecutive New Mexico AAU title recently in Albuquerque.

“They’re ready,” Downing said of her squad. “We went up to a tough tournament in Oklahoma recently and won a championship, and the week before last we won a tournament in Lubbock.

“This group of kids just wants to compete and get better. They’re just a bunch of gym rats, and they love the game.”