Mesa Ridge AD DJ Latino recalls Pueblo East roots heading into girls' hoops playoff matchup

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Photo - The Classical Academy's RaeAnn Queener (left), Mesa Ridge's Chloe Welch (center) and The Classical Academy's Kaitlyn Walters (right) fight for a loose ball on Saturday, January 7, 2017 at Mesa Ridge High School.  Photo by Spotlight Sports Photography.
The Classical Academy's RaeAnn Queener (left), Mesa Ridge's Chloe Welch (center) and The Classical Academy's Kaitlyn Walters (right) fight for a loose ball on Saturday, January 7, 2017 at Mesa Ridge High School. Photo by Spotlight Sports Photography.

DJ Latino is sure to meet plenty of friends prior to Tuesday's game between Pueblo East and Mesa Ridge in a girls' 4A round of 16 basketball matchup.

Afterward, he'll renew acquaintances and catch up with those who are considered family to Latino, a 1997 graduate of East who later spent 14 years as a baseball coach and social studies teacher at the school.

At 7 p.m., however, the second-year athletic director at Mesa Ridge will be all business as his No. 7 Grizzlies (20-4) host the No. 10 Eagles (17-7), with a berth in the quarterfinals at stake.

"I guess when you're a part of a school for as long as I was, it becomes part of who you are," Latino said. "East is a special place to me, but Mesa Ridge is my new school, and I feel being here has been a great opportunity for me. I'm looking forward to seeing some old friends. Other than when they play Mesa Ridge, I'm still an East fan."

Latino's knowledge of East on a personal basis might be the only commonality for Tuesday's round of 16 local matchups in 5A and 4A. In addition to Mesa Ridge, a handful of Pikes Peak-area teams will look to extend their seasons to Friday's quarterfinal round.

The other four games - Pine Creek (17-7) at Ralston Valley (23-1) and Fairview (15-10) at Doherty (23-1) in 5A, and 4A games featuring Rifle (21-3) at Air Academy (20-14) and TCA (20-5) at Windsor (18-6) - pit squads that have either never faced each other or haven't in more than a decade.

Early in the 2015-16 season, Mesa Ridge earned a four-point win at Pueblo East.

That's all first-year Eagles coach Angelina Gorham has in preparing her squad for a Grizzlies program that won the 4A state title in 2014 and will be seeking its seventh berth in the 4A quarterfinals since 2009.

"Not playing them can be scary at times," Gorham said. "We did see Mesa Ridge last year, and they play teams that are close to us, so I know about player characteristics from what I've seen. I feel like the girls are prepared. It's really exciting."

In Doherty's case, the squad is going from one extreme to the other. On Friday, the Spartans held off league rival Rampart, beating the Rams for the third time this season. On Tuesday, Doherty will face a Fairview squad it has little in common with.

"We're not terribly familiar with Fairview," Spartans coach Patrick McKiernan said. "We played them in a tournament in October and scrimmaged with them in November, but that was before the season. You'd like to see them in person, but from what I've seen on film, they're well coached and run a good offense. At least we still had a high enough seed where we can host. That way, we can stay in our same routine and be playing in our own place."

Last March 1, Doherty hit the road and got behind early at Ralston Valley, dropping a 56-31 decision to the Mustangs, who ultimately reached the 5A semifinals.

On Tuesday, the Spartans hope to return the favor.

"They have to come down here, which is the opposite of last year, so we might have an advantage there," McKiernan said. "Earlier, the kids were worried about the rankings. We knew we could win our league and get a first-round bye and get two home playoff games. We'll see where that takes us."