Honoring trailblazers: 1973 San Jon girls basketball team was first New Mexico champion post-Title IX - Albuquerque Journal

Honoring trailblazers: 1973 San Jon girls basketball team was first New Mexico champion post-Title IX

From left, Janice Green is joined at a Friday luncheon by several of her teammates from the San Jon basketball team — Anita Lee, Patty Martinez, Rogene Musick, Bethe Cunningham, Rhonda Mitchell and Mary Ann Malone — that won the first state high school championship for girls, back in 1973. A half-century after its historic accomplishment, the team will be recognized between state championship games on Saturday at The Pit. (Jon Austria/Albuquerque Journal)

The golden girls of San Jon this weekend are marking a one-of-a-kind golden anniversary.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the first official high school girls state basketball champion in New Mexico. San Jon was the inaugural winner, in 1973, less than a year after the landmark Title IX legislation was put on the books.

San Jon and coach Ed Lee beat Texico 37-33 at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.

“It was packed,” Janice Green, who played on that San Jon team, recalled. “The whole town of San Jon was there. The whole town of Texico was there.”

A half-century later, a few of the women from that championship team gathered in Albuquerque for a reunion. On Saturday, they will be introduced at The Pit.

“I think it’s an honor, really,” said Karlene McCoy, another member of that team. She still lives in San Jon. “At the time, we never thought it was anything big.”

On Friday, a handful of members of that San Jon squad were at the Embassy Suites hotel, just a couple miles down the road from The Pit, joining other 25- and 50-year anniversary boys and girls teams for an annual recognition banquet that is held during state tournament week.

Manzano, Portales and Lordsburg are this year’s 50-year anniversary boys state champions.

Before they took their seats for Friday’s celebration banquet, the women from San Jon’s squad took some time to reminisce on that season, that time, and the decades that have passed since they made history. And also to take some playful jabs at their age.

“Can you believe how old we are?” Rogene Musick asked.

“There’s lots of mileage on these bodies,” McCoy said.

The beginning

San Jon is 200 miles east of Albuquerque on I-40, about 20 minutes past Tucumcari.

It was the winter of 1972 when San Jon and a couple dozen other schools, most of them on the eastern plains, started up high school girls basketball programs. Title IX had just been instituted that June.

The San Jon players were already active and highly successful in the sport at the AAU level — “we always played,” team member Cindy Stamps said, “from the time we were in junior high” — but, now, they were being given a chance to represent their high school. Which was a huge upgrade in their profile.

“Back then,” Green said, “everyone was centered on the boys.”

“We barely had uniforms,” Musick observed.

Anita Lee, left, and sister Terry Lee show off medals they received during Friday’s luncheon at the Embassy Suites hotel honoring their 1973 San Jon girls champion basketball team. (Jon Austria/Albuquerque Journal)

And that first season, there wasn’t even a classification system in New Mexico.

The San Jon Coyotes competed against such schools as Elida, Texico, Logan, House and Fort Sumner. As yet, Albuquerque schools hadn’t joined the party.

The gathering of teams from small-town New Mexico made the championship game at ENMU, whose gym was so much larger than the high school gyms they regularly played in, unique.

“It’s a whole lot like … remember that movie where that guy, Gene Hackman, walks in and takes the tape measure. … Ed took us in the gym and said, this is just like our gym back home,” said Bethe Cunningham, a San Jon sophomore that 1972-73 season.

“Hoosiers” was the name of the movie, someone said to her.

Cunningham smiled.

“Yeah, when I saw that movie, I said, well, ‘we did that.’ ”

Commemorating 50 years

Amistad, another small school on the eastern New Mexico plains, south of Clayton, was the 1974 girls state champion.

It wasn’t until 1974-75 that classes were introduced in girls’ basketball; Eldorado (Class AA) and Dora (Class A) were the two “class” champions that year.

As for recollections of results of games, well, they were admittedly a bit hazy after five decades.

“Was there one or two overtimes?” Green said at one point, looking at Musick. “One overtime,” was the answer.

From left, Janice Green, Anita Lee, Karlene McCoy, Cindy Stamps and Bethe Cunningham, all teammates on the 1973 state champion San Jon girls’ basketball team, catch up during a Friday luncheon. (Jon Austria/Albuquerque Journal)

At the state basketball tournament, one of the great annual traditions is pausing to recognize anniversary championship teams. This is done late in the week, when the tournament reaches the finals stage.

So, this San Jon group already had a 25-year recognition, in 1998. But there is something singularly unique about this weekend, and commemorating 50 years since they were joined on the basketball court.

Lee, who is deceased, led his team to a 17-0 record that first season. Revered by his players as a father figure, he started only seniors on game nights. It was, they said, a reward for having endured his tough practices.

“Mr. Lee was very instrumental in getting all of that put together to make a girls’ tournament,” said Musick. “We had tournaments, but not a state tournament.”

In 2023, the state basketball tournament is the biggest sporting event in New Mexico. It covers two weeks, includes 160 teams — 80 boys teams, 80 girls teams — and is steeped in history. This is a far cry from those modest beginnings.

Still, while the scale of the sport in 1973 might have been tiny compared to 2023, the ambitions as a player, to win, were identical.

“I think we were just tickled that we got it done,” Green said.

As teenagers, Musick said, they weren’t really aware of the significance of their trailblazing moment.

“We didn’t think of it that way,” she said. “We just played to win. That’s all we were thinking of. Just have fun and play.”

The 50th anniversary strikes a different chord for team members. In more ways than one, said Stamps, who was sidetracked briefly by something.

“You know what I thought of?” she said to Cunningham. “I thought, I hope they don’t have us pose like we posed for our (team) picture. Because I don’t know if I could get up. You and me were on the floor on our knees.”

Mischevious banter aside, the ladies from San Jon are thankful to be part of this weekend, to share some laughs and memories, and to ruminate a bit on basketball and friendships.

“I think it’s special we’re all here,” McCoy said, “after all these years.”

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