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Yodice: State tournament was memorable for (mostly) the right reasons

As we circle around to the end of the prep basketball season and the conclusion to another marathon and deeply fulfilling week, some observations and reflections:

WELCOME TO THE CLUB: Remarkably, we very nearly had three metro-area schools become first-time state champions within a span of about six hours.

As it was, the boys from Belen and Atrisco Heritage joined the first-timers fraternity, while Menaul, a school that opened almost 125 years ago, fell a whisker shy against Fort Sumner/House – which was the first co-op boys team to win a blue trophy.

Hope Christian’s Johnny Nitafan shoots in the Huskies’ Class 4A finals victory over Bernalillo. Hope has six straight titles and moves up in classification in 2018-19. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Thinking back on the 12 state champions, none of them cleared a more imposing set of hurdles than Belen.

The Eagles hadn’t played in a state final in 33 years, had a first-year head coach in Andrew Dunnell, and yet still achieved the most impressive feat of the entire week – they handled the cauldron of facing Española Valley in the Sundevils’ home away from home, backed by maybe 10,000 voices, and did the near impossible. They silenced them.

SEED PLANTING: The girls from Fort Sumner/House, as a 4 seed in Class 2A, were the lowest-seeded state champion this year. There were two 5s, the boys from Menaul and Cleveland, that reached the final, and four of the 12 divisions had a 1-vs.-2 final.

Only five No. 1 seeds emerged with a blue trophy, and only one boys team, Melrose.

There was a remarkable sequence of title games on Saturday, as three No. 1 boys seeds – Texico, Bernalillo and Española Valley – fell in consecutive games.

Starting the day, that trio’s combined record was 86-2.

Then the No. 1 Cibola girls, 26-2, fell to Hobbs.

FAMILIARITY: As part of a collectively dominant Friday display by the girls of the eastern plains – championships by Melrose, Fort Sumner/House and Portales – there was also Elida, which won its state record-tying eighth straight title.

Hope Christian tied a boys state record with a sixth straight championship. That dynasty looks awfully healthy to me, even as the Huskies move into the state’s second-largest class next season.

Pecos was the other repeat boys state champion this year.

FAMILIAL-ITY: At least two of the 12 winning coaches had a child playing for them – Wade Fraze of Portales and his daughter Kelly, and Atrisco Heritage coach Adrian Ortega and his son Diego. And both children played integral roles in leading their teams in the fourth quarter of the championship game.

WE MISS YOU: One of my favorite elements to this particular weekend was some New Mexico coaching legends – Don Flanagan, Jimmy Joe Robinson, Mike Brown and Jim Hulsman – taking center court as their anniversary championship teams were honored.

Hulsman walked out with his 1993 Albuquerque High Bulldogs, wearing his trademark green blazer. That was the best non-basketball moment of the week.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The basketball was uniformly excellent, with an abundance of white-knucklers.

There were several overtime games and even a couple of double-overtime games along the way, plus one of the most controversial … ahem … buzzer-beaters … we’ve ever had at the state tournament – which may possibly open the door to a video review system for officials in the near future.

It was also the finale to the career of the great Amaya Brown of Cibola. She was a little broken up in the postgame interview session, as are so many brokenhearted boys and girls – and coaches – who care so deeply about this sport and this tournament.

FAVORITE QUOTE: It was this piece of humanity from Portales girls coach Fraze that stuck with me, and was a poignant reminder of how sports is merely periphery to the task and responsibility of a coach:

“If we lost every game of the year,” he said, “I couldn’t be any prouder of them.”

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