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COVID and basketball

Garrett May, a junior, and other members of the Española Valley High School basketball team practice in their quiet gym on Feb. 10. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

In the before times, the Española Valley High School Sundevils boys’ basketball team would normally be preparing to compete in the district tournament this time of year, with a shot at earning a berth in the state tournament in Albuquerque.

The team would play games in front of a packed house inside the school’s massive gymnasium, with some community members waiting outside the school for a chance to get in. In Española – as with much of northern New Mexico – such scenes had almost become routine.

But it’s been a complete reversal for the Sundevils and nearly every other high school team this year. COVID-19 postponed all high school sports and only recently were plans announced to try to salvage the prep sports season by playing abbreviated schedules in most sports.

At 6:30 a.m., Sundevil players arrived to practice as they had dozens of times before. However, now they wore face masks and kept six feet apart during practice while the normally roaring gym echoed with silence.

Ollie Fell of the Española Valley High School basketball team practices with his “pod” on Wednesday. With high school sports postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the gym that is well known for amazing energy is mostly silent. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced New Mexico schools to postpone prep sports seasons. For communities in northern New Mexico, the lack of high school sports – especially basketball – has been a bitter pill to swallow, even with the potential to play games on the horizon.

Few understand the fervor for basketball in the region like Ira Harge Jr., Española Valley’s athletics director. He previously coached the boys’ team at Pecos High School, another basketball-obsessed part of the state, where his teams won four straight state titles.

“It’s one of the premier sports in northern New Mexico,” Harge said of basketball. “We get snow, wind, rain … so basketball, being an indoor sport, is extremely popular.”

And it’s even more so at Española Valley, which last won a state title in 2016. The passion for the sport extends even to lower grades, where games between area elementary schools can pack small auditoriums with local residents.

Sundevils boys head coach Gabriel Martinez said that, for many of those young kids, it’s their dream to one day don a Sundevils uniform, and represent their school and community when they’re older, as it has been for generations of players before them.

“It’s a dream of theirs since the time they’re youngsters who had barely learned how to play the game,” Martinez said.

All players who spoke to the Journal said they’re hoping to keep that dream alive this season; for some, it’s their final opportunity.

Juan Branch, a senior, was looking forward to his final season of playing hoops. A team captain, Branch said basketball practice has been a welcome reprieve from weeks of online learning. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Juan Branch, a senior, is still waiting to play the first game of his final season. Serving as a team captain, he takes his role seriously, treating practice as though a vital game was just around the corner. He could be seen encouraging teammates as they progressed through their early morning workout.

He said, though, that playing basketball his senior year would mean a lot. He’s been playing the sport since he was 5 years old and this season was one he had long anticipated.

“My senior year was the one I mostly wanted,” Branch said. “With COVID and everything, we haven’t really got to have a senior year.”

However, now Branch said, basketball has been a welcome reprieve from weeks of online learning, offering him a rare chance to connect with classmates during the pandemic. Other players have been practicing at home during this extended offseason, trying to keep in shape for a possible season.

Garrett May, a junior, said he thinks his constant work during the pandemic has given him an edge, one he hopes to use when the team can finally play a game. He added it has been strange seeing the gym so eerily quiet, an unusual sight for anyone from the area.

“You want to see the whole Española Valley in the stands,” May said. “It gives you that fire.”

Even the practices look remarkably different. Players are divided into “pods” of 1-4 players, with each pod practicing at its own basket, usually dribbling or shooting drills.

Martinez said there’s a lot they’re not able to do in this format – developing offensive schemes, five-on-five scrimmages and situational drills have all gone out the window. So, too, has scouting, since no other team has played a game they can study.

That might change in coming weeks. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently announced school districts across the state could start in-person or hybrid classes, and many districts have already made plans to do so.

Those who have at least some in-person classes will be allowed to start playing some sports, with boy’s basketball currently slated to start on March 22, with the state championship taking place from May 3-8.

The Española School Board narrowly approved a hybrid model for high school students only that is set to start Feb. 22. The Rio Grande SUN reported some board members thought the reintroduction of students in the classroom could further jeopardize lives in the area, which has been hard hit by the pandemic.

But the players all seemed to welcome the opportunity to play. Martinez said a few families decided not to have their students play this year, but most decided to stay.

“I think this is what coaches are dealing with around the country at every level,” he said. “The boys have continued working toward reaching that goal of eventually playing again.”

And talk to this year’s Sundevils and they’ll tell you their hopes go far beyond just playing one game – they have their sights set on Albuquerque.

“I feel like we’re one of the teams in the state that can make an actual run (at the state title),” May said.

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