By Eric Butler
Twice in the last three years, St. Pius has won both the boys and the girls state basketball championships at the Class 4A level.
With players like Chris Johansen graduating from last year's boys team, chances of it happening again for 2009 seemed rather diminished.
But don't look now...the Sartans are playing the role of favorite once again.
A senior-laden, yet "inexperienced" group, according to St. Pius boys coach Damian Segura, has started to jell. The Sartans have started the district with a 4-0 mark, including wins over Grants (67-54) and Belen (63-47) last week.
In fact, that's seven straight victories for the St. Pius boys and 10 out of their last 11 overall.
"We have some guys who are growing into their roles and learning to play with each other a little bit better," said Segura, whose teams have won the last three Class 4A titles.
"It's kind of been a collective effort. We have four guys who have averaged about 10 points a game. Any given night, it's usually one of those guys or, hopefully, a combination of those guys."
One of those players, Gerald Bourguet, is working his way back from a groin injury. The senior forward was the Sartans leading scorer when he got hurt a couple of weeks ago.
Others have stepped up in his absence, however. Calvin Farmer, a 6-foot-4 senior, has stepped up his scoring productivity to 15 points per game in recent games while fellow seniors Ryan Meyers (11 points per game) and Josh Lujan (9) make steady contributions from their guard spots.
The biggest challenge for St. Pius heading into this season was dealing with the loss of Johansen – who found a spot this season on the University of New Mexico roster as a walk-on.
"You can't replace Chris. That would be too much pressure on any one person to say, 'Hey, go get 20 points and grab 10 boards every game,'" Segura said. "We actually asked our players who were coming back to get another bucket a game, and maybe grab another rebound. Collectively, that takes the place (of Johansen)."
As for the St. Pius girls, the beat goes on. Although the Sartans did lose six players to graduation after winning the state title last March, St. Pius has been on a tear.
After an early-December loss to 5A power Eldorado, the Sartans have won their last 17 games in a row. The loss to the Eagles, in fact, is the only blemish on a 22-1 record for St. Pius – which has turned to the all-around play of senior Alex Membreno and the inside presence of post players Jordan Unverzagt and Caitxlin Boal.
St. Pius is currently top-ranked in the girls 4A state coaches poll. Among the highlights for the Sartans this season is a 51-38 road win at perennial power Kirtland Central and a 49-35 home victory over previously top-rated Moriarty.
"We've played an unbelievable schedule. In my opinion, one of the toughest schedules in New Mexico and we've had success," St. Pius coach Phil Griego said. "Obviously, I feel good about where we're at and what we're doing."
Griego added that two of his players, Membreno and Unverzagt, have some interesting options when their current high school careers end. According to the coach, both have been offered a chance to walk on at UNM and possibly receive a scholarship when their sophomore year of college begins.
On the other hand, Membreno has been extended offers to play at both Air Force and Navy while Unverzagt has opportunities to go to Columbia or Cornell.
"Alex Membreno has been playing outstanding. She's a point guard for us and, honestly, there's not anybody better in New Mexico," said Griego of one big reason why St. Pius hasn't dropped off much – if at all – from its 2007-08 championship season.