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Demons regroup to make another run

Santa Fe High School senior guard Cruz Martinez tries to protect the ball from several Albuquerque High players. Martinez is expected to be one of leaders as the Demons look to make a state tournament run. (Glen Rosales/For The Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Two seasons ago, the Santa Fe High School boys basketball team reached the state championship game when no-one expected them to. Last season, the Demons were expected to make it that far, and came up short.

Now, a program that is trying to recover from last summer’s shooting death of star player and University of New Mexico recruit J.B. White, sets its sights on doing it right this abbreviated season.

“We’re really playing hard and together,” coach Zack Cole said. “That’s really who we are.”

It is a little different this season without White in the middle, senior guard Cruz Martinez said, but that doesn’t change the Demons’ mission.

“Every year, we kind of have high expectations of our program,” he said. “In recent years, we’ve thought of ourselves as one of the better programs in the state. Of course, like those top programs, we focus on getting a blue trophy, that state title. With that, we have a district championship we want to win, rivalry games and all that, but, overall, it’s the state title.”

Santa Fe may be one of the smaller squads around as senior wing Jaiden Block and junior power forward Joseph Lopez Ramos tower to all of 6 feet, 1 inch. What the Demons do have is a group of shooters from the outside, hard workers on the inside and grittiness from the roster’s top to bottom.

“We’re trying to focus on our seniors,” Cole said. “Every program does. And we want to give them the best last season that we possibly can. We have a great group of seniors. Cruz Martinez, Cody Garcia, Jaiden Block, newcomer Gabe Sidebottom. We want to give them a great experience.”

And with so much time and missed practices lost to the coronavirus, the season has a definite surreal quality to it, the coach said.

“It’s weird,” he said. “Really weird right now. It feels more like a summer program. Usually, you end a season, you go into summer, you have turnover, you don’t know who your team is yet. You’re trying to find yourself. Trying to find people who are going to fill the vacancies. You’re trying to find rotations. So it kind of feels like a summer program in that sense, but for the real thing. So it’s a really strange feeling.”

But the tandem of Martinez and Garcia will be a strong handful for any squad to curtail.

“What we like to do in our program is pass a lot of responsibility down to the seniors,” Cole said. “And have them sort of pass the buck down to the younger guys. So we’re focused on them and having the seniors focused on the underclassmen. We’re just trying to stay busy. And to stay safe at the same time, as well.”

The strong leadership makes it easier on the coaches, as well.

“It takes a lot of stress off our shoulders,” Cole said. “It’s my fifth year here. We made the state tournament every year. We made a nice run a few years ago. We fell short last year. The responsibility, the framework is already set. And it’s really nice. This is the longest tenure I’ve had at a school. We sit back and say, ‘This is what it feels like to see all the hard work pay off.’ ”

Indeed, that hard work has transformed the Demons into a program that generally needs to be reckoned with come the postseason.

“It feels good to come into a program and it’s, like, not at breaking point, but, like, right about to get there,” Garcia said. “And then you have a good season and that puts you above where you were and into where those elite programs of New Mexico are.”

Having that program pride is an important lesson, Cole said.

“We tell the players it’s their program,” he said. “We always ask them what they’re going to leave behind for the next group and I think that’s starting to show, all the hard work for the past four years.”