Talk about your strange-looking state basketball tournament.
The 2021 event will begin on a Monday afternoon and evening, with 24 games. On the third day of May. A third of those 24 quarterfinal games will be played at neutral sites, two of them featuring No. 1 seeds.
One quarterfinal game, on Sunday, produced a truly surprising announcement of a venue change. More on that shortly.
We can say, through this grueling COVID-19 pandemic and the shaved-down prep sports calendar that grew out of it as a result, is that it will at least end the way most other seasons have ended — with championship games at the Pit.
By March 2022, I think we expect we’ll be able to see the faces of the players again. They’ll remain in masks for the duration of this week.
On that subject, state basketball brings us full circle, so to speak. It’s been nearly 14 months since tournament officials were forced to ban fans in the middle of the second week of the 2020 event because of the impending arrival of the coronavirus.
This week’s finals, spread out over Thursday, Friday and Saturday, will see the Pit filled to 25 percent capacity, or about 3,000 fans max in the lower bowl.
Storylines this week? So many.
The 12-0 Las Cruces boys are 5A’s defending champion and this season’s only undefeated team in that class. But the Bulldawgs were given a 3 seed this week, which is perhaps less a reflection on them than it is their district. Either way, Las Cruces surely feels slighted.
Also from 5A, can Cleveland finally win that elusive first blue trophy? Can Atrisco Heritage and coach Adrian Ortega earn their third title in the last four seasons? Can John Lee Zumbrun, who did such a tremendous job coaching the Carlsbad girls over the years, make some noise this week now that he’s the coach of the Cavemen boys?
Looking over the boys brackets Saturday night, it was jarring not to see some of the familiar names we’ve come to expect this particular week.
No Hobbs. No Valley, the two-time defending champ in 4A. No Hope Christian at state for the first time, coach Jim Murphy said, in about 15 years. The 4A bracket does include Bernalillo, and this could be the last shot for longtime Spartans coach Terry Darnell, the district’s interim superintendent who said he’s going to try to become the full-time super later this year.
The top two seeds in 5A girls are the two teams that met in last season’s state final, Hobbs and Volcano Vista. There are three unbeatens in that eight-team bracket, No. 3 Centennial being the other. Sandia made a dramatic entrance into the postseason, playing its way in Saturday, the final day of the regular season.
Possibly the most interesting team in this field is No. 4 Los Lunas. For years, many of us have speculated about how the Tigers might fare if they competed in the largest classification. Well, now Los Lunas is in the largest class after dominating the second-largest division recently with three straight titles: 2018, 2019 and 2020.
And then, on Sunday, Tigers coach Marty Zeller did an extraordinary thing. For the quarterfinals on Tuesday, Zeller said Los Lunas would pass on a home game, where there couldn’t be any fans, and play the game instead at No. 5 seed Cleveland, where fans will be permitted.
A remarkably selfless act.
There will be 70 games over the next six days. Fifteen of the 80 playoff teams are undefeated. Eight of them are 12-0, which is the best possible record anyone could achieve this spring.
One of those 12-0 groups are the Jal boys, who have a Division I prospect in Roger Carreon. A Division I football prospect, that is. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Carreon, who’ll be a senior in the fall, is one of New Mexico’s most sought-after recruits.
Pecos is seeking a fifth straight boys championship, but the coach that led them to the last four, Ira Harge, Jr., is now the athletic director in Española. Former Harge assistant Arthur Gonzales took over.
The team that should generate the most rooting interest are the girls from Hatch Valley. Coach Ben Trujillo’s wife, former Las Cruces Superintendent Karen Trujillo, died earlier this year when she was accidentally struck by a vehicle as she walked her dogs. Ben Trujillo and his Bears have many fans this week.
This year is the 25th anniversary of my favorite all-time tournament, the amazing 1996 event in Las Cruces. The Class 4A boys tournament was won by Valley, which strung together three colossal upsets over the final three days at the Pan American Center.
This was arguably the most competitive tournament (the four quarterfinal games were decided by a TOTAL of nine points) and most thrilling one I’ve ever witnessed.
The Vikings won four games in four days, actually, including a win over Las Cruces on the Bulldawgs’ home floor on Wednesday night in what was then called the pre-playoffs.
There were 10 teams in that Class 4A field — the top two finishers from each of the five districts, and Valley had the worst record of the 10.
On Thursday, shockingly, Valley upset fourth-ranked Hobbs and coach Ralph Tasker, 78-77.
On Friday, the Vikings toppled No. 2 Albuquerque High and coach Jim Hulsman, 58-55.
In the final, Valley beat No. 1 Alamogordo and coach Ron Geyer by a 60-54 count.
Imagine Valley doing all of this at the Pit.
The more time that has passed since that historic week, the more crystallized the notion becomes in my head that Valley’s performance over those memorable four days has no equal at this level. Not in my career, anyway.
From my keyboard, there has never been a team that managed to beat so many outstanding teams, and Hall of Fame coaches, in a single tournament.
Those four days in 1996 in Las Cruces were a wonder.
Here’s hoping for another memorable event this week.