Change? The Albuquerque Public Schools athletic department can accommodate that request. To wit: the APS menu is being overhauled.
It has been four-plus months since Adrian Ortega stepped into the district’s athletics director role, and already he has put the the wheels firmly in motion on upending a few status quos in APS.
Try some of these on:
- Teams from far outside the metro area — such as the Hobbs boys and girls, for example — are booked for next January’s metro basketball tournament.
- Albuquerque’s high schools are going to be allowed to travel out of state for competitions. That is on the horizon a year from now.
- Eighth-graders are soon going to be permitted to compete in high school athletics. That starts in August.
- And there may soon be a new method for fans to electronically consume high school events in Albuquerque.
Ortega, formerly the boys basketball coach at Atrisco Heritage, became district AD in early December. He recently sat down with the Journal for an hourlong, wide-ranging interview at APS headquarters where he outlined his ambitions, detailing some of the tweaks and upgrades that he has implemented, or hopes to implement, for the state’s largest school district.
Hit the road
Coaches across the city have long been clamoring for the chance to leave the state to face non-New Mexico competition. Ortega said he consulted the 13 high school principals “and all 13 were in favor of this initiative.”
APS is going to allow — starting with baseball, softball, golf, tennis and track and field next spring — individual teams to make one trip out of state per season. That could take the form of individual games/meets, or it could be a tournament.
The fall and winter sports can take a single trip starting in the 2023-24 school year.
“It’s a monumental breakthrough for us,” Volcano Vista wrestling coach Ahren Griego said. “Eighth-graders (getting to compete in high school) was the first huge step, but travel tremendously levels the playing field.”
Football teams, as they are on a two-year scheduling block for 2022 and 2023, likely won’t be able to travel until the 2024 season.
“We’re excited about that,” La Cueva football coach Brandon Back said. “I think it’s just being able to play an opponent that you don’t often get a chance to play, and to prove to schools around our region that our kids can play with anybody.”
Since the spring sports lost the large majority of their seasons in 2020, when the pandemic first began, Ortega said, they should be the first in line to travel. But the teams themselves have to raise the money and foot the travel bill — for everything. That includes busing, a driver, gas, food and lodging.
“I think it helps us to keep growing our programs in the state to be nationally recognized,” said West Mesa High cheer coach Stephanie Davy. “It also gets our kids that exposure to be seen by some college programs.”
Rio Rancho and Cleveland have been regularly traveling to other states for many years. Rio Rancho, in particular, has yearly trips outside New Mexico in softball and wrestling.
“The opportunity is there for every program. Whether they take it is their decision,” Ortega said. “This is common practice. We have to catch up to the rest of the state, and specifically (Rio Rancho and Cleveland).”
By any other name
The metro basketball tournament will retain its title, Ortega said, even if it won’t be a purely all-metro affair.
“My vision is to make that a pre-state tournament event,” Ortega said. “You want that (1 vs. 16) to potentially be an upset.”
Ortega confirmed that Hobbs has agreed to travel that week early in 2023 to play in the boys and girls events. The Santa Fe boys and the Gallup girls also are booked. The format will remain a 16-team event over five days.
Ortega said it is possible other schools from outside the metro area may be added to the field. APS would like to add the Las Cruces boys at some point.
A key component: Ortega wants to give APS programs the option, in any sport, to pass on metros in order to find games, or another tournament that better suits their competitive needs.
Two examples: The Rio Grande girls and boys are two of the teams opting out of metro basketball, and next spring, Highland said its baseball and softball teams will bypass metros.
“Not only do we support (the chance to opt out), it’s what we argued for,” Highland athletic director John Barnhill said. “We are just trying to find the best, most competitively appropriate tournament we can to benefit our kids.”
APS hopes to follow similarly with baseball and softball next March, and then the following fall with soccer.
For many years, APS teams have not been playing the maximum number of competitions permitted by the New Mexico Activities Association.
Schools outside APS can play a maximum of 26 games in basketball, baseball and softball, and 20 in soccer. APS has been playing 24 and 18 for many years. Generally, it has been a two-fewer concept across the board. Now, APS teams will have the option to schedule the maximum, depending on the sport.
Based on budget projections, Ortega believes the additional games/events are doable without financial hardship to the department.
There are other periphery benefits especially as it pertains to postseasons. Won-loss records and team rankings on MaxPreps.com are criteria for selecting and seeding in many sports, and two extra games could prove beneficial.
“This puts us on a level playing field with all of the other school districts, and that’s a great thing,” Sandia High girls basketball coach Lee Kettig said.
Ortega seems ready and intent on challenging the NFHS Network’s presence in Albuquerque.
Ortega said he is working on an APS broadcasting network, one in which the district can show all its sporting events.
“Currently,” he said, “we have NFHS Networks in our gyms, and quite frankly, it’s hurting our revenue.”
The vision, Ortega said, is to provide a camera to each school and sell subscriptions for sports. It would start with a camera in gyms for sports like basketball, volleyball and wrestling, but Ortega said he would like to eventually place cameras at “all APS indoor and outdoor facilities,” including the APS Soccer Complex, with APS pocketing the subscription fees, he added.
“There’s a lot of money being made by other entities that are not APS Athletics, they’re not even New Mexico residents,” he said. “I want the money to stay here, the money needs to go back into our kids. … There’s plenty of room for innovation and growth.”
Ortega is on record as wanting to upgrade. Middle schools only offer volleyball, basketball and track and field, and Ortega would like to find a way to expand the offerings.
A possible example: Spring soccer at the APS Complex, which sits mostly silent that time of year.
Middle school transportation is roughly $80,000 a year, Ortega said. He said if he could convince parents to be more active in ferrying their kids to sporting events, perhaps APS could free up funds for expansion at the middle school level.
The Journal already has reported in an April 22 story that eighth-graders, starting next school year, will be permitted to compete in high school athletics, with some provisions.