RIO RANCHO — Sitting in the first few rows of the bleachers at Rio Rancho High School’s basketball gym on Tuesday afternoon were several Rams basketball players, oohing and aahing as Jachai Simmons put on a bit of a post-practice dunk show for them.
The University of New Mexico’s 6-foot-7 junior college transfer didn’t disappoint after the Lobos’ hour-plus practice at the high school — the first of three this month at metro-area high schools.
On the other side of the gym, the Rams coach, Wally Salata, was enjoying the show, too, but he was keeping his oohs and aahs to himself.
“For me as a coach, I had goosebumps seeing them walk off the bus and seeing them walk into our gym,” Salata said. “It’s giving our community and this school an opportunity to see a Division I program come practice. You see them play, but you never get to see the work they put in behind the scenes like this. For me, I’m excited to see what things I pick up.”
While a good amount of Salata’s roster was at Rams football practice — the bulk of his frontcourt makes up the football team’s huge receiving corps — he said he can’t wait to get them all together to go over what he learned Tuesday.
“My guys are over there watching the dunks and how high guys jump,” Salata said. “I’m looking at drills right now and this shell drill (going on as he spoke with a reporter), we try to teach that as well, but I’m picking up some things we’ll be using this year.”
The Lobos will also hold open-to-the-public practices at La Cueva on Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. and at Albuquerque High School on Oct. 24 (a time has not been set).
First year UNM coach Paul Weir said bringing the Lobos to the community, rather than waiting for the community to come back to them after attendance has dipped in recent years, has more than just a basketball component.
“It’s helping UNM in admissions, too,” Weir said. “We’re doing what we can to thank all the students we can who go to UNM (from here and the other high schools we’re visiting).”
As for the practice itself, Weir said the team went pretty hard on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday, while it was a full practice and did start with some physical, loose-ball drills, was devoid of much scrimmage-type drills pitting players against one another.
“I think it’s exciting to get out in the community and show people we still care,” said Lobos senior forward Sam Logwood. “… And just playing in a different gym should help us in the long run.”
THE NEW DUNK CHAMP: Logwood, winner of past UNM dunk competitions at the Lobo Howl preseason event, which was shelved this season, has gladly handed over the crown as the team’s best dunker even without an official competition taking place.
Logwood could hardly let a reporter finish the question about who was the team’s best dunker before he answered.
“Jachai Simmons by far. By far,” said Logwood, who has also said he’s felt like he’s in the best shape of his life this offseason and dunking as good as ever.
Nevertheless, he knows how much of a high flyer his new teammate is.
“Yeah, he’s got me. No question,” Logwood said. “It’s all right, though. I’ll take second.”
HE SAID IT: Weir knows the team has a tough task in front of it this season, but he likes — really likes — what he is seeing.
“I’ve been doing this for 13 years,” Weir said. “I’ve been very lucky to be a part of nine championships now and six or seven NCAA Tournaments. I’ve never been around a team that has worked this hard and been this together on Oct. 10. Now, does that mean we’ll be there on Nov. 10? I don’t know. That’s part of our challenge. But, so far, the buy in, the commitment, the work ethic, the team chemistry has been exceptional. … It’s encouraging.”