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Mad for hoops in Pecos

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In an empty Pit, the Pecos boys celebrate a fourth straight championship, just the second public school to do so. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Activities Association)

There is no denying that what the Pecos boys basketball team has accomplished is special by winning four straight Class 2A state high school championships.

But just how special it really is requires a deeper look into the record books that date back to 1921.

Sure, Albuquerque Academy had its run of six in a row from 1989-94, and Hope Christian recently won six in a row and nine in 10 years.

When it comes to public schools, however, the Panthers stand atop the podium alongside just one other squad: Hobbs under coach Russ Gilmore, which won four in a row from 1999-2002.

No other public school – not even the Eagles under legendary coach Ralph Tasker who twice won three straight – can match Pecos.

“I’m surprised. I did not know that,” Panthers coach Ira Harge Jr. said. “That’s just amazing. Our guys just play. I can’t say it better than that. We try to win every quarter of every game. We break it down even further than that. We want to win every possession.”

This is a winning streak that has not been marked by one or more dominating players. No, the names and the faces change each season: only Xavier Padilla can truly claim to be a contributor to all four championship teams.

“I’ve been blessed and the community of Pecos has been blessed to have the athletes to be able to win,” Harge said.

If there is an apt analogy, think “Hoosiers” and Indiana small-town basketball. That is Pecos. Rural, ringed by mountains and hoop mad.

“I’ve had coaches tell me that when they go through Pecos, all they see are boys and girls with basketballs in their hands, Harge said with a chuckle. “In a way, I would say that’s right. In my seven years here, it’s been like that. These guys, we can’t keep them out of the gym. It’s an exciting prospect.”

As a matter of fact, it’s taken an overwhelming and unforeseen force of nature to shutter the venerable Pecos hardwood.

But don’t for a minute think that all of sudden those kids in town are going to stop playing.

Harge won’t officially condone it, but he knows what’s going on.

“I know these guys,” he said. “I’ll tell you what they’re doing. They’ll find an outside court and they’ll go play. There’s one at the school they use, but the main one that they love to play on is behind the fire station.”

That’s where the deft hands that fuel the lockdown defensive press are trained. It’s where the non-stop layup drill caused by that defensive pressure is honed. It’s where those clutch 3-pointers are developed and those amazing dimes are first dished.

And it will be needed because, unlike at other times in the streak, Pecos is considerably vulnerable.

“Each year has gotten tougher,” Harge said. “You win one state championship and that’s hard enough. A second time is twice as hard. Three times is three times as hard and a fourth is four times as hard. You watch other teams on tape and they look OK. When they play us, they don’t miss shots, they get steals, deflections and rebounds. They play a very solid game. We take everybody’s best shot. We have for the past two, three years. We expect them to know we have to match their energy and if we don’t, we know it’s going to be a dogfight.”

The only problem for Pecos is those dogs next season will be young and unseasoned. Nine Panthers were seniors and the remaining five returning players averaged 10.4 points between them, led by 3.8 from rising senior Rolando Sandoval and 3.0 from freshman guard Jodaiah Padilla.

“We’re developing the young guys so that they will be ready next year,” Harge said. “We will have two seniors, two juniors and 16 sophomores. We knew we weren’t going to be able to move them back and forth (from JV to varsity).”

So the plan is to work the players hard over the summer.

“What we’re going to have to depend on this summer is tournaments and team camps to get them used to the speed of the varsity game,” Harge said. “We’re planning on a huge summer this year and try to develop these guys so they can maintain what’s been built.”

And if the coronavirus should happen to linger through the summer, well there is sure to be some spirited activity on the court behind the fire station.