Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
When Cece Barela found out from her father, Leroy, that the turmoil at Robertson High had reached the boiling point last spring, she reacted with calmness.
She knew it was time to leave her hometown of Las Vegas, N.M. and move to the bigger city of Albuquerque. They had already discussed the idea in the past, but the opportunity became fully evident in the form of drama at Robertson, where Barela’s father was the head coach of the girls basketball team.
Robertson meant a great deal to Barela and her father. It was his alma mater, a girls basketball powerhouse, one that is playing in Friday’s NMAA Class 3A state championship game as the top seed.
But the coach and his family knew it was time to move on.
As West Mesa celebrated its dramatic 59-57 overtime win over Piedra Vista in a Class 5A semifinal Thursday afternoon, Barela and her father felt even more that they made the right decision. Barela the player, after all, scored 19 points, draining 5 of her 7 3-pointers to help the No. 3-seeded Mustangs (27-3) reach their first state championship game. They will play against top-seeded Hobbs Saturday at 2 p.m. at Dreamstyle Arena.
As a 9-year-old, Barela would have her father drive her to Albuquerque to play on the same AAU team as Maiah Rivas and Esperanza Varoz, both are now seniors for West Mesa. Rivas, a dynamic point guard, scored a game-high 21 points against Piedra Vista, and Varoz converted two huge free throws with five seconds remaining in overtime for the win.
“The opportunity was there for me,” Barela said of transferring to West Mesa. “I loved where I was at and I loved my hometown but being here (at West Mesa) has been so amazing. I have the best teammates and I have the best coaches. It’s just been a great experience all around. I’ve enjoyed it.”
In last year’s state tournament, Robertson, the No. 2 seed, was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Pojoaque Valley, who had lost to the Cardinals three times during the regular season. A week later, Leroy Barela said, Roberterson parents started a petition that raised concerns and led to the coach meeting with administration.
Leroy Barela said the meeting went well but he wanted to resign.
He compiled a 24-33 record the first two seasons at Robertson, then guided the Cardinals to a 47-11 mark over his final two years.
“You fight the good fight, but at the same time you have to do what’s best for your family,” Leroy Barela said. “You have to find a situation where you thrive, and not just survive.”
It was tough for Leroy Barela to get out of coaching, but he saw the bright side of spending more time with his family. He is now the dean of students at John Adams Middle School.
Basketball will always run deep in the Barela family.
Leroy Barela’s wife, Julie, the former Villanueva, was a four-year letterwinner at West Las Vegas. Julie coached her daughter when Cece was in middle school. Cece, now a sophomore, started playing at Robertson as an eighth-grader.
Cece has two younger brothers who love to ball, too. Noah, 10, plays for San Felipe de Neri Catholic School. Zachary is only 4, but Leroy says he probably loves the game the most because he’s always dribbling a ball around the house.
The family usually schedules vacations to involve basketball, one time going to Denver to watch the Nuggets. And, they hope to have a vacation that includes the NCAA Final Four sometime.
For now, a trip to the Class 5A state championship at the Pit is the perfect “stay-cation.”
“This is all I have been dreaming about my whole life,” Cece said. “It’s amazing.”
Cece, who also went by Maria in Las Vegas, played point guard for Robertson. After her eighth-grade season, Leroy Barela said they talked about moving to Albuquerque, where she could get more exposure.
“Things happen for a reason,” Leroy Barela said. “My kids are thriving now. … (West Mesa coach Manny Otero) is the right fit. He has really expanded her game. He has been able to get more out of her. When you see your kid work hard and you see someone (Otero) who puts in that type of investment, it warms your heart.”
Cece scored a season-high 20 points in West Mesa’s first-round win over Oñate. She plans to have bigger games for West Mesa in the future, maybe even on Saturday.
“Cece has been awesome for our team,” Otero said during Thursday’s postgame interview with Cece sitting next to him. “We welcomed her with open arms. … She’s one of the best teammates we could have. Anyone who has a work ethic like she does and add that with being a great teammate, we could always welcome a girl like that. She also has all the skill and shooting ability that you saw in this game when she hit five 3s. She’s a great addition to our team. We’re lucky to have her.”