We are about to say our goodbyes to one of the strangest years of high school athletics there has ever been in New Mexico.
Maybe, even probably, THE strangest.
Reflecting on the last 12 months, here are my choices for the top five prep stories of the calendar year.
Respectfully, and with a heavy heart, I dedicate today’s column to the memory of Mike Brown, of Karen Trujillo, of Matthew Asher, of Micky Reeves, of Phil Griego, of Brian O’Neill, of Marleen Greenwood, of Mike Danoff, of Richard Stevens, of Todd Bailey — men and women who contributed to high school sports in this state in one form or another, in front of the scenes or behind the scenes, and who left us in the last 12 months.
■ No. 5
There is actually triple meaning to this.
It could refer to having two football seasons in 2021, a terribly short one, lasting just a month in the spring, without playoffs, and a normal one in the fall, with playoffs.
It could refer to the way the City of Vision’s two football teams, Cleveland and Rio Rancho, dominated the conversation in the autumn, leading up to their seemingly inevitable matchup in last month’s Class 6A state final.
But neither is the double to which I refer.
It does involve Cleveland, but the double is the rare one the Storm managed in 2021 — the school’s first boys basketball championship in May, followed by the football title in November.
■ No. 4
In this job, the term “student-athlete” is commonplace during the course of a school year.
But before these teenagers are students, and before they are athletes, they are kids. Young, impressionable, passionate, often selfless human beings.
There were two examples that brought this to light during the football season. Both occurred on Friday, Oct. 22.
The first was the Goddard football team, busing to Artesia, but stopping on their way to the game to help the driver of a vehicle of a rollover crash after the vehicle ended up on its top. Players and coaches got out and turned the car back over in order to help the driver get out of the car.
In Lovington, the coaches of the Wildcats, Anthony Gonzales, and Ruidoso, Kief Johnson, agreed to a unique pact: to allow a Lovington student/football player at Lovington with Down syndrome, Iziah Martinez, to score a touchdown. Which he did, at the end of a game that the Wildcats won 46-14. The players from both teams were quick to surround Iziah and congratulate him and celebrate with him.
These were two transcendent snapshots of brotherhood that allowed them all to prove that “student-athlete” is sometimes an inadequate and restrictive definition.
■ No. 3
COVID craziness, Part I
It wasn’t until January that high school athletes learned that they’d even have a chance to compete, and what a relief that news was since the entirety of the 2020-21 school year was in jeopardy of being canceled until then.
The first official competition of the year was a cross-country meet at Bosque School on Feb. 27. That ended a stretch of 50 weeks without prep sports, and the grueling nature of the coronavirus made the absence seem like 150 weeks.
Multiple teams around the state made the decision in the spring that not having a season was preferable to competing. A handful of schools — including Robertson, the eventual fall football champion in Class 3A — opted out in the spring. Sandia volleyball and Hope Christian softball were other teams that bypassed a spring schedule.
Teams and players in every corner of the state were hamstrung, or quarantined, by COVID-19. Sometimes, schools were shut down and forced to go to virtual learning. And some playoff qualifiers forfeited out of the postseason altogether.
■ No. 2
COVID craziness, Part II
There would just be no way to encapsulate how the coronavirus impacted this corner of New Mexico’s sports world. Hence, it carries over for a second entry.
We had outdoor wrestling tournaments. State basketball in May. On one very weird crossover day in April, there were contests being played in fall sports, winter sports and spring sports.
Mostly, COVID forced the sports to be crammed into a four-month calendar, from late February to late June. Seasons were shortened, especially for the fall and winter athletes, and the late finish created an uncomfortable scenario at small-school state track meets, where boys and girls were forced to compete in the middle of an awful heat wave. With masks. (Don’t even get me started on the boneheadedness of the state imposing its mask mandate on the outdoor sports athletes.)
But, the sports were played, and blue trophies were handed out across the board, except for football where there simply wasn’t enough time to schedule a postseason.
Frankly, just reaching the finish was, under the circumstances, a triumph.
Bittersweet, but a victory nonetheless.
■ No. 1
From half court
The ball now rests under glass at Volcano Vista High School, encased inside the classroom of head coach Lisa Villareal. It is signed by the players and coaches of the Hawks girls basketball team.
On May 8, that ball came out of the right hand of junior guard Natalia Chavez from just inside the half-court line. It banked off the glass of north-end standard and fell through the net — a stunning and scintillating 3-point buzzer beater (in overtime, no less) that won the Class 5A state championship for Volcano Vista against Hobbs.
That shot made national news when the following day, ESPN selected Chavez’s game-winner as its No. 2 play on that day’s top-10 list.
It was going to take something truly remarkable to bump COVID-19 out of the No. 1 slot for the second straight year, but Chavez’s shot — measured at 45 feet, 5½ inches — most definitely qualifies. And as this is my dime, I prefer to end today on an upbeat note.
Chavez’s shot ranks as one of the great high school sports images New Mexico has ever produced. In any sport.
My best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.