Ernie Rodriguez had a choice.
And he went with Phoenix Central.
The head boys basketball coach at West Las Vegas went with an unknown quantity — but a known coach — for the opening round of the 59th annual Stu Clark Tournament that begins Thursday afternoon in the John A. Wilson Complex at New Mexico Highlands University.
Protocol gave co-hosts Las Vegas Robertson and West Las Vegas the choice of their opening-round opponents, and Rodriguez zeroed in on Central, which is 6-2 in Arizona’s Division I, the highest classification in the state.
“They’re athletic, and they’re not much bigger than any of the teams we’ve faced this year,” Rodriguez said. “I’m glad to have the opportunity to play a quality opponent in a quality venue.”
Quality runs throughout the bracket. Bernalillo is 7-3 and coming off an impressive 48-43 win over St. Michael’s on Dec. 18. Its opening opponent, Albuquerque St. Pius X (3-1), owns a 57-50 win over the Spartans.
Moriarty is off to a surprising 8-3 start, its best in many years, and will take on a Cardinals team that is 1-5 to start the season. Two of those, however, were forfeits since they were not able to attend the last two days of the Sandia Prep Invitational on Dec. 14 and 15 since the school restricted travel because of a snowstorm that weekend.
The Dons (3-4) haven’t played since beating Santa Fe High’s JV for seventh place in the Capital City Invitational in Santa Fe on Dec. 15. Rodriguez is curious to see how his team has improved since then. And they will be tested no matter what side of the bracket the Dons are on after Thursday.
“The second round, whether it’s the evening bracket or the sunshine league, we will get a quality opponent,” Rodriguez said. “When we get to Saturday, regardless of what happens on the other side of the bracket, we will have a quality opponent. That is what a classic tournament should be. A lot of people use the term ‘Classic’ or ‘Super Classic,’ but it’s anything but.
“I’m glad to see that the Stu Clark committee is committed to bringing strong teams to the tournament.”
Defending tournament champion Capital (8-1) gets Albuquerque West Mesa, which is 0-4, but Jaguars head coach Mark Senteney is not going into the game with a false sense of security. A preseason scrimmage showed Capital what the Mustangs can do.
“Even though we didn’t keep official score, it was a close game,” Senteney said. “Their big guy [6-foot-6 post Jason Baca] hurt us. They’re not bad, just very streaky.”
For Senteney, getting to play during the Christmas holiday, much less the Stu Clark, is a huge benefit for his team. Prior to last year’s appearance, Capital had not played in a holiday tournament since going to the Poe Corn Invitational in Roswell in 2008.
“We’ve gone through this before, where we didn’t play through Christmas and New Year’s,” Senteney said. “We don’t like to give these guys time off during that time. We need to play our way into shape, not practice.”