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Elida girls are playing for family

This is the story of a father, a grieving son, and some girls with a mission.

It is also, at its most basic, a story about love. For family. And for basketball.

Only about 200 people call Elida home, although this blink-and-you’ll-miss it stop along N.M. 70, situated about halfway between Clovis and Roswell in Roosevelt County, is one of New Mexico’s small-school female sports giants.

Elida is a school that is currently operating multiple dynasties, in volleyball and girls basketball.

Coach Jaden Isler dedicates the Tigers' first round 1A state championship playoff win over the Floyd Broncos to his father, J.D. Isler. Isler, whose father and former Elida Tiger coach J.D. Isler died earlier this season in a car accident, played basketball for his dad while he was head coach of the Clovis Wildcats and during his senior year of college when J.D. Isler coached at McMurry University. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

Coach Jaden Isler dedicates the Tigers’ first round 1A state championship playoff win over the Floyd Broncos to his father, J.D. Isler, who died earlier this season in a car accident. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

The Tigers, to that end, are pursuing their fifth consecutive small-school hoops title this week.

The chase might be familiar.

The route is not.

“There is a bigger goal (this week) than just basketball,” said Jaden Isler. “We’re playing for him.”

Isler’s father, and Elida’s coach, J.D. Isler, died on Jan. 11, exactly two months ago, in a two-car accident north of Clovis.

Jaden, his top assistant, is coaching Elida now, completing a journey he knows in his heart belongs to a man that has left an enormous vacancy in his life.

“I’ve been through the wringer,” he said quietly.

In Elida, here is a team, and a school, and a town, playing for more during the next five days than probably it ever has before.

“You can’t prepare for what happened,” senior Kenzee Criswell said. “But we’ve definitely come together as a team and as a family after the accident.”

Father and son

Jaden Isler is a small-town kid himself. He was raised in Grady, about 40 miles north of Clovis. His father once coached that school’s girls program to a state title in 1986, and later the Grady boys to a championship in 1995.

The son is 25 now. Jaden played for his dad when J.D. was Clovis’ boys coach, and the two reached the 2008 state final, losing there to Hobbs.

Jaden went on to play for his dad at McMurry University in Texas, and they won a conference championship there.

As a tribute, Jaden wears his father’s ring from that season during Elida’s games. J.D. Isler was only 52 when died. He was instantly killed in that accident.

The cause of the crash, Jaden said, remains uncertain.

“It was a big jolt. He was in such good health,” Jaden said of his father. “No son should have to deal with this that young.”

The Elida Tigers, led by coach Jaden Isler, right, line up for the National Anthem before the opening round of the Class 1A tournament last week. They face Grady/House in the quarterfinals today at Bernalillo. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

The Elida Tigers, led by coach Jaden Isler, right, line up for the National Anthem before the opening round of the Class 1A tournament last week. They face Grady/House in the quarterfinals today at Bernalillo. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

J.D. Isler became the head coach when his predecessor, Dan Howard, a contract coach, resigned after leading Elida to four straight championships.

Isler had been out of coaching a couple of years to tend to personal matters.

“Elida was very fortunate to bring in a coach like J.D. Isler,” said Larry Gregory, Elida’s principal and athletic director. “And things started to pop.”

His impact was immediate, players say, and J.D. even composed the school’s first-ever fight song. Those lyrics now hang inside the Elida gym.

A banner with the Elida fight song hangs in the high school gym. Former coach J.D. Isler wrote the song. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

A banner with the Elida fight song hangs in the high school gym. Former coach J.D. Isler wrote the song. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

The bond was forming.

And then he was gone.

“We took it really hard,” said senior Marily Varela, who herself has lost a parent and probably understood this tragedy’s dimensions better than any player. “We were getting close to him. It hit us really hard.”

Elida asked J.D.’s son to take over the program. It was not an easy decision, he said, for all the obvious reasons.

“But I knew my dad would want me to go on and carry on his legacy,” Jaden said. “The other part of it is the girls. I instantly thought of them. I knew they were hurting as much as I was, and there was no way I was gonna leave those girls to anyone else.”

The day after his father died, Jaden went to Elida to meet the girls and offer his commitment to them. Together, they’ve navigated the tricky emotional waters of this season’s second half.

“He talked to us about how it was going to be hard, but that we would all be in it together,” senior Kynzi Creighton said.

In terms of basketball, the transition was as smooth as anyone could have expected. Father and son shared basketball philosophies and coaching styles.

But everyone knew there’d be a vacancy on the bench, even if every chair was filled.

“The pain that everybody was in … ” Jaden said, voice trailing off.

Strong and tough

“It’s very blue collar,” Isler said, describing Elida the town and also the team he inherited.

Only one Tiger, he said, actually lives within the town’s limits. The rest commute a pretty fair piece from ranches and farms and some even from Portales.

Coach J.D. Isler took over the Elida girls basketball team this season, but died in a January car accident. (Albuquerque Journal)

Coach J.D. Isler took over the Elida girls basketball team this season, but died in a January car accident. (Albuquerque Journal)

This season was already shaping up as a special one.

Elida had won the past four Class B championships. Class B is now Class 1A, but by any other name the Tigers are the name occupying the top line of the bracket. Nobody in their classification has beaten the Tigers in any of the last five seasons.

They were seeded No. 1 for state, and demolished Floyd in the first round. They are back on the floor at 9:45 a.m. today at Bernalillo High School against combo program Grady/House in the quarterfinals.

“I think we’re very determined to get a state championship,” senior Karisma Jasso said. “We’re not just doing it for us.”

“It’s to honor him and everything he did at our school,” added Creighton.

The team decided very quickly that while their personal goals were still there, the season itself became about something other than their needs.

That they have poured their energy into playing for Jaden and his father is not lost on the son.

“The girls have a very strong work ethic, and it comes from that blue-collar background,” Isler said. “The girls have been unbelievable. They’ve handled things so much better than I would have at their age. Their strength gives me strength. They’ve handled this situation way beyond their years.”

The final week

This road, if it goes as expected, would see Elida at the Pit on Friday in the 1A state final.

“We will definitely have coach on our mind,” said Creighton. “We always have that thought that we have to play for him.”

Elida coach Jaden Isler wears his father's ring from the league championship McMurry University won when Jaden played for J.D. Isler. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

Elida coach Jaden Isler wears his father’s ring from the league championship McMurry University won when Jaden played for J.D. Isler. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

As the season reaches a pinnacle this week, Jaden said he’s reminded of the many lessons he learned from his father. Both as a player and as a coach. One lesson, in particular.

“Like, how you handle adversity shows what your true character is,” he said. “It’s helped me and the girls get through it.”

For Jaden, one of his coping mechanisms is to retreat to the locker room before every game, get on a knee, think of his father, and pray.

At 9:45 this morning, Elida begins the final push.

“It’s just kind of how we feel right now,” said Criswell. “Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure on us, but I think that pressure is what builds us up. We take it as a challenge, these next three games. Our attitude right now is, there is nothing we can’t accomplish.”

This week, they will play for each other.

They will play for their new coach. And they will play for their former coach.

J.D. Isler is gone, but he hasn’t left. Not really. And for these four days, Elida is rock-jaw determined to pay tribute through inspired basketball.

“Now we have an even bigger reason to finish this season,” said Varela. “It’s not really for us anymore. It’s for him.”

Elida senior Marily Varela brings the ball upcourt against Floyd in the first round of the Class 1A state tournament Friday night. The Tigers won 72-27 to advance to today's quarterfinals. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

Elida senior Marily Varela brings the ball upcourt against Floyd in the first round of the Class 1A state tournament Friday night. The Tigers won 72-27 to advance to today’s quarterfinals. (Joshua Lucero/For the Albuquerque Journal)

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