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Former Dons standout takes on trainer/mentor role

SANTA FE, N.M. — Even now, a decade after her graduation from West Las Vegas High School, the name Vera Jo Bustos resonates across northern New Mexico.

The Dons’ record-holder in points, rebounds, assists and steals, Bustos is one of the poster children for small-town girl made good.

Following her stand-out prep career, Bustos moved on to Adams State University, not only earning an undergrad degree in Exercise Science and Sports Psychology, but also becoming the Grizzlies’ all-time scoring leader and 3-pointer scorer.

She even played a year of professional hoops in Thessaloniki, Greece, before returning to Adams State to earn a master’s in sports administration.

Now, as a director of operations for the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team, helping the Lobos to a nice run in the WNIT, Bustos has added to her growing résumé with the creation of VJ’s Elite, a basketball training ground for youngsters who want to reach the heights Bustos attained.

“This is I guess something that’s been special to me, growing up in northern New Mexico and getting the opportunity to fulfill my dream, of playing college basketball and playing professional basketball, and coaching Division I and Division II basketball,” she said. “I fulfilled my dreams.

“Now it’s my duty to help the youth of New Mexico to fulfill theirs. It’s my calling, something that God has placed in my heart. Sharing my experiences and how I fulfilled my dreams.”

Given her training in sports psychology and at the behest of parents of some of her trainees, Bustos has added an element about the mental aspect of sports.

“I had a coach in college that was big on the psychological aspect,” she said. “Mental toughness. She went on to be a mental strength coach to West Point. I learned a lot from her.”

That was the spark Bustos needed.

“From there, that’s where my passion ignited and it’s why I went into sports psychology,” she said. “Going pro and all that, everybody would agree if they saw me against other players, I was not the biggest, strongest or most athletic. What got me there was the hard work, discipline and my mentality.”

It’s an aspect of the games that is frequently neglected, she said, but oh, so important.

“I think the mental aspect of the game is overlooked a lot and I think it’s one of the most important,” Bustos said. “Coaches and athletes don’t spend a lot of time on it, but if you can overcome those negative thoughts, you can become so much better off.”

With the emphasis on success earlier and earlier in youth sports, children are subjected to a significant amount of negative feedback and the kids need a way to deal with that, she said.

“I feel like it’s an epidemic,” Bustos said. “Kids don’t have that confidence when they have a coach that’s yelling at them. It’s become an epidemic. You can see that confidence dwindle. I’m trying to be that model and guide them on how to find that confidence. Just to show them how to find it, little tricks to show them.”

Although VS’s Elite is based in Albuquerque, Bustos is taking her show on the road, appropriately enough back home to Las Vegas, with two one-day summer camps at Robertson High School.

She did a one-day camp there last year for boys and girls in seventh grade and younger, and this year it’s being opened up to high schoolers, as well.

It is something Cardinals coach Leroy Barela thought was important for the local hoops community.

“On a personal level, I have a daughter coming up in the sport of basketball and Vera Jo was somebody who she looked up to,” he said. “We kept track of her career in college and overseas professionally. What a beautiful thing to bring her back home and show the rest of these young girls that if your put your heart and soul into what you’re doing, good things can happen. And she epitomizes that.”

Last year, the camp had about 50 players, but Barela expects more this year.

“I have a feeling it may double,” he said. “She does have a brand right now. When you’re as successful as she is, and where she’s from and a brand tied to your accomplishments, it starts to market pretty well. My daughter and I have VJ’s Elite shirts. When people have a chance to be part of something like that, they want to do it. I think it’s going to take off into something spectacular. I think it’s going to blow up into something pretty huge.”