In a New Mexico sports year fraught with complications, the No. 1 story is simplicity itself.
The tough got going.
And, yes, the going got tough, really tough. Faced for yet another year with some of the most stringent coronavirus restrictions in the nation, New Mexicans kept finding a way.
If it meant wearing a face mask while playing football, basketball or volleyball, or wrestling, or running 3 miles, well, fine. Swimming? Goggles, maybe, but no face masks.
If it meant traveling to other states (or other countries), being tested repeatedly for COVID and dealing with quarantine for the opportunity to trade punches and kicks in empty arenas, why not?
Who, though, is the poster child for the toughness, the dedication, the perspicacity (yeah, that’s right) that New Mexico athletes, coaches, administrators and even fans displayed throughout the year?
Candidates abound. But the winner here is … the University of New Mexico women’s basketball team, which not just survived but thrived through a chaotic 2021.
In any year approaching normalcy, a coaching change at the top of UNM men’s basketball would be a virtual lock to be the top story of the year. That happened in 2021, with Richard Pitino, son of a coaching legend, taking the reins after Paul Weir’s exit. But this year came as close to normalcy as the Lobo men did to a winning season.
Last year in this space, the choice for top story was the absence of the Isotopes – a stark and sad symbol of the COVID-dominated year that was 2020. The ‘Topes’ return, of course, was a positive and welcome development.
Exactly what voters’ emphatic rejection of a bond issue to fund a soccer-specific stadium in Albuquerque says about our community is wide open for debate, and certainly, a story-of-the-year candidate.
Two former Lobos, Courtney Frerichs and Josh Kerr, won Olympic track-and-field medals. There is no bigger stage, even in a Games hamstrung by COVID in Tokyo.
More big stage: Former Lobo and Valley Viking Teton Saltes won the Wuerffel Trophy, “presented to the FBS player who best combines exemplary community service with leadership achievement on and off the field.” Carlsbad left-hander Trevor Rogers’ superb rookie season earned him a spot in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.
From the world of high school sports, the big stories in the COVID era kept coming. Those, however, are the sole domain of Journal prep writer James Yodice, whose coverage year after year is virtually without a flaw. I could say the same for his taste in hamburgers.
So, what did the Lobo women accomplish in 2021, under such trying conditions?
Glad you asked.
They began the season with a 4-0 record, compiled on the road in December 2020 after having the home portion of their pre-Mountain West Conference schedule canceled. They swept their Mountain West-opening series at Nevada, then had their two-game series at Utah State postponed because of two positive COVID tests (neither players nor coaches) in their travel party.
The team spent six days in quarantine at a Utah hotel.
“Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as you might think,” Lobos forward Shaiquel McGruder told the Journal’s Ken Sickenger.
We’ll take her word for it.
The Lobos then flew to Las Vegas, Nevada for games originally to have been “home” games for the Lobos in Canyon, Texas, splitting a pair with UNLV. Two games against San Jose State were canceled when SJSU opted out of its conference schedule.
On Jan. 20, the Lobos were allowed to come home and practice, but not play, at the Rudy Davalos Center. At the end of the month, they split two “home” games against Fresno State at West Texas State A&M in Canyon.
After sweeping San Diego State on the road, the Lobos then had an 18-day hiatus. During that period, two games at Colorado State and two more at Wyoming were postponed because a Lobo tested positive for the virus.
The Lobos returned to the court Feb. 23 at Air Force, splitting two games with the Falcons, then swept the rescheduled games against Utah State in Logan.
They then finished the conference season at – of all places – the Pit, sweeping Colorado State to capture the program’s first outright Mountain West regular-season title.
Having played the team’s first 15 games of the season outside the state, senior guard Jaedyn De La Cerda said, “was a blessing after all we’ve been through. We got to celebrate at the Pit. Dancing in confetti, taking pictures with the trophy, cutting down nets, it’s what we all dream about.”
From there, the Lobo women bowed out with a loss to Fresno State in the second round of the Mountain West tournament and lost to Cal Baptist in Fort Worth in the first round of the WNIT.
Yet, against the backdrop of COVID-19, the Lobo women’s success – a 15-5 overall record, an 11-3 conference record, the league title – personifies the determination and the pursuit of excellence that New Mexico athletes, coaches, administrators, yes, fans, too, displayed during another tortuous year.
A lot more could be written, a whole lot more, about that. But I’ll leave it right here, because – I don’t know about you – I’m ready for this year to end.