BERNALILLO – Every day, tens of thousands of people wear out the central road in this village, most of them on their way to, or from, someplace else.
For the people who are anchored here, Bernalillo is also this: one of New Mexico’s most passionate boys high school basketball communities.
And do the Spartans ever have a whopper of a team on their hands this season.
“This,” longtime coach Terry Darnell said, “would be a team, if we were still in (Class) 5A, that could contend for a state championship.”
Now a 4A program, the Spartans – who after a 16-0 start suffered their first loss of the season on Thursday night, 61-54 at Belen – are perhaps poised to do something nobody else has managed in the last six years, and that’s topple juggernaut Hope Christian in the state’s third-largest classification.
Thursday’s foul-plagued, choppy loss to the Eagles, who are a solid 5A team, ended the best start in Bernalillo program history. Even with this school’s rich basketball tradition, Bernalillo has never before enjoyed such a prolonged run of wins to start a season.
And while Belen soured their mood temporarily, these Spartans are having a blast.
“It’s been really fun,” said Bernalillo senior post Solomon Fragua. “We’re having a good time out there playing our game.”
Spartan basketball, by and large, is defined as a collection of speedy guards, most of them under 6 feet, running the floor and following Darnell’s long-held philosophy of turning defense into offense.
Darnell has won a couple of state championships this way with Bernalillo – the last two coming in 2004 and 2005 – and he is also on a short list of coaches who have achieved that rare double of earning state titles as a player and a coach with the same school.
And he made no secret of his belief in November that he thought he had a championship-caliber team in his midst.
“I’m not really surprised,” said shooting guard Reyes Herrera. “Because we’ve been putting in the work. None of us butt heads. If we do something wrong, we’re always picking each other up.”
Bernalillo was dropped from 5A to 4A before the 2016-17 school year. The Spartans made it into the Pit last March, where they were dismissed in a 31-point quarterfinal loss to eventual state champion Hope.
Every other team in 4A has at least four losses this season, and the Hope Christian Huskies (8-7) haven’t been up to their usual high standards – yet – this season.
But even a couple of Spartan players confess that this type of blazing start could not possibly be understood, especially as they reflected on a summer session in which they struggled to find an identity.
After freshman Gabriel Prairie buried a 30-foot buzzer beater on Dec. 1 to beat Del Norte 69-68, Darnell already was inclined to believe that this season could pan out in a most wonderful way.
“Just because we had all the pieces we needed,” said Darnell, who is in his 24th season of coaching his alma mater. “As long as we’re a cohesive group and stay together, we have a chance of being on the top, for sure.”
The presence of Fragua is surely integral to all of this. At 6-foot-7, he would stick out on any roster, but he really stands shoulders above the rest on Bernalillo’s roster.
Fragua is the biggest post the school has had since the mid-90s, Darnell said, and at the 4A level, there are precious few teams capable of matching his size.
“(Our style) actually looks the same,” Darnell said. “We still pressure, and we still get up and down the floor. But Solomon and (6-4 power forward) Mariano (Lobato) allow us to take a little bit more of a gamble.”
Although Bernalillo still tends to want to flourish offensively starting from the perimeter, Fragua, more than any Spartan, arguably benefits most in their system. He averages 11.5 points and 6.6 rebounds.
“Solomon has never been able to score as many points as he has this year, because of our shooters,” Darnell said.
That group includes, but is not limited to, Herrera and sophomore point guard Luis Villegas, who has done a superb job of running the show. Those two combine for nearly 30 points a night.
And if Bernalillo does return to the Pit in a couple of months, Darnell figures Hope will still be part of the equation, whether the Spartans play them or not.
“That to them was a big embarrassment,” Darnell said of last season’s playoff loss, adding that his team is “focused on not letting that happen again.”
THURSDAY NIGHT: Villegas was hindered by major foul trouble throughout, which Darnell said was certainly a factor in his team’s road loss.
The Eagles outscored Bernalillo 28-9 in the second quarter, and although the Spartans did twice pull within four points in the second half – 43-39 and 47-43 – 3-pointers by Justin Evans and Uriah Zengerly were huge responses for Belen (12-5).
Big man Alexis Aguilar led the Eagles with 13 points, including several 3s that clearly caught Bernalillo by surprise. Herrera had 13 points, Fragua 12 for Bernalillo.