ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Photo of celebrating Sandia players after last year’s title game motivates No. 1 Eagles
A picture, it is said, is worth a thousand words.
Sometimes, it’s worth a thousand glances. A thousand irritating, frustrating, blood-boiling glances.
“Every time you think about it,” Eldorado senior forward Kayla Dobson said, “it kind of makes you mad.”
The photo to which Dobson refers appeared in the Journal on March 14 of last year. In it, three Sandia basketball players are celebrating after the Matadors beat the Eagles in the Class 5A state championship game.
That photo is taped onto a poster inside the Eldorado girls locker room.
Underneath the photo, written in black magic marker, are these words:
Not this year. This is our year.
“I’m glad it’s up there,” Eldorado coach Mike Huston said. “I was going to give them a photo of us with the second-place trophy.”
As the prep season hits the home stretch – the regular-season finales are less than three weeks away (on Feb. 18) – there is a familiar scenario unfolding.
Eldorado’s girls, at 17-1, have been ranked No. 1 almost every week of the last two regular seasons as the Eagles’ program begins to stir – admittedly faint – memories of a dynasty constructed by Don Flanagan that ran from 1980 to 1995.
There were 11 blue trophies in that window. None since.
But with two state championship game appearances in the past three seasons, and possibly another one on the horizon, this much can be said: Any road to a state title appears to detour through the burnt orange.
“There’s a little pressure with that,” senior guard C.C. Rode admitted, “but it doesn’t mean anything until March. I believe we do have all the pieces, if we put them together.”
Save a slip-up against Del Norte, which is one of the metro’s most underrated teams, the Eagles have been perfect. They’ve got wins over La Cueva, Volcano Vista, Gallup, Santa Fe Indian School and Cibola.
While it’s a relatively young group, with only three seniors, it’s hard to find flaws. Eldorado remains one of New Mexico’s most assertive and effective defensive teams; all season, only two opponents have reached 50 – Gallup and Volcano Vista, in the past two games.
“We’re on top,” said senior forward Madison Lopez. “But this year, we’re looking to keep pushing and keep pushing, and not get to that complacent stage. Last year, I think we peaked early and plateaued.”
So far, Eldorado hasn’t appeared to be uninterested. Anything but. Offensively, the Eagles are probably more versatile and explosive than even last year’s group, with guards who can shoot and forwards who can finish – such as the 5-foot-10 Lopez, who is one of the state’s best players. Eldorado often scores in frantic bunches.
“We’re really excited,” Lopez said, adding with a hint of caution: “Right now, it’s mental for us a little bit. Once we get over that, there’s no stopping us.”
And here is where that aforementioned photo plays such a prominent supporting role. It’s a constant reminder of how a great regular season can crash and burn in a 32-minute span on Championship Saturday.
And for some, it registers more deeply than others. When Dobson is doing her hair and makeup in the morning, she’s never far from that photo. Dobson has a copy of it taped to her mirror at home.
“You look at it,” Rode said, “and you get an itch, like, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
Orchestrating it all is maestro Huston, a very popular man around the Eldorado campus and highly respected among his coaching peers. Ominously for those chasing the Eagles, the talent pipeline is flowing. The Eldorado JV has one loss and the C-Team is undefeated. Both teams are heavily populated with freshmen.
Huston, in his ninth season, said perhaps the most important ingredient has less to do with talent than it does simple chemistry – “it isn’t a forced union,” he said – and a determination to author a new March Madness ending.
The Eagles would be happy to have their own celebratory photo in this newspaper March 13.
“We have our best basketball ahead of us,” said Rode. “We’ve had some good games, but I don’t think we’ve had a great game yet.”
Said Huston: “Are we the best team in the state? That has yet to be proven.”