Espanola Boys Beat Capital, Win Class 5A State Championship
By George Morse Sports and Outdoors
Eight teams went to Albuquerque with the dream of being the Class 5A state boys basketball champion in the 2016 state basketball tournament. At the end, it was the Espanola Valley High School Sundevils who were team left standing on the floor of the Pit in Albuquerque holding the state championship banner while “We are the Champions” was played.
The Sundevils kept their fans, who packed the Pit for each of Espanola’s three games in Albuquerque, on the edge of their seats. In each game, the Sundevils had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to take victory from the jaws of defeat. In two of their wins, Espanola trailed with less than 20 seconds left in the game. Their opponents battled the Sundevils tooth-and-nail throughout the game. Espanola was the team with the will to finish.
Championships are forever
With his team surrounding the table in the media interview room after the Sundevils scintillating victory over Capital High School in the Class 5A state boys basketball championship game, Espanola Valley High School Coach Richard Martinez reflected on what it would mean to the young men.
“I told them before the game ‘You can wash blood, tears will go away, pain will heal,’” he said. “But I will tell you one thing. A victory is forever. And they have it.”
Coach Richard Martinez celebrates with supporters adn team members. Valley Daily Post photo
In 2011, Martinez had sat at the same table, surrounded by an earlier Espanola team that had just won the first state basketball championship in school history, defeating Roswell Goddard High School 55-52 in the then Class 4A championship game. Martinez had focused on the meaning of that championship to the people of the Espanola Valley, whose legendary support for the Sundevils had finally been rewarded with a state championship. In 2016, he focused on his players.
“Today, they are champions,” Martinez said. “Tomorrow, they will be champions. Twenty years from now, they will be champions. When their kids are grown up, they will be champions. When they see their grandkids. And when they put them in their coffins and they are laid to rest with me and everybody else, they will still be champions.”
The Sundevils did it by shutting down a Capital team that had taken them to the cleaners just three weeks ago, beating the Sundevils 72-56 in the District 2AAAAA tournament championship game Feb. 27 at Capital. The Jaguars were led by senior guard Eric Coca, who had scored
26 points in the victory over Espanola. Coca had led Capital to the championship game, scoring 22 points against Los Lunas in the Jaguars’ 52-44 win in the quarterfinals and 21 points in Capital’s 52-46 victory over Grants in the semifinals. To beat the Jaguars, Espanola had to stop Coca.
To do that, Coach Martinez utilized a box-and-one defense. The “one” would have to stick to Coca like white on rice. Coach Martinez tapped senior Marcos Flores to fill that role.
“(Coach Martinez) wanted me to stick to Coca like glue,” Flores said. “He said I was the man he wanted in Coca’s face all night.”
The final statistics showed how well Flores did his job. Coca scored just one point on a free throw after a hard foul by Flores as Coca went in for a breakaway layup. Coca’s other two shots were long three-point attempts that didn’t fall.
Despite that Capital led for most of the game. The Jaguars took a 9-5 lead in the first quarter after a jumper from the top of the key by Anthony Salcido. The Sundevils came back and a runner by J. P. Sena made the score 9-8 at the end of the first quarter.
Leo Pacheco gave the Sundevils their first lead of the game 10-9 with a basket to start the second quarter. Espanola would not lead again until the final seconds of the game.
Capital answered with a 7-0 run fueled by five points from Jerome Arroyos, who had a three-pointer and a pair of free throws. Leading 16-10, the Jaguars let a golden opportunity to take control of the game slip away. Espanola struggled to score for several long minutes, but Capital failed to extend its lead. Azaziah Salazar finally nailed a three-pointer to make the score 16-13 at halftime.
After Capital had taken an 18-13 lead at the beginning of the thirdQuarter, the Sundevils came back to tie the game 18-18 after an old-fashioned, three-point play by James Archuleta. Both teams had trouble scoring and Capital clung to a two-point lead 24-22 going into the fourth quarter.
Capital matched its largest lead of the game -six points, after a basket by Isaiah Brooks gave the Jaguars a 30-24 lead. Capital never could come up with the big basket that would make it a three-possession game. That allowed the Sundevils to stay within striking distance.
With 1:01 left in the game, a free throw by Brooks made the score 33-29 in favor of the Jaguars. With 51.6 seconds left, a free throw by Salazar cut Capital’s lead to three points. After a timeout, Jeremy Anaya made 1-of-2 free throws to make the score 34-30 with 35.3 seconds left.
Flores was fouled and went to the line with 28.5 seconds left and sank 1-of-2 free throws. On the ensuing inbounds play, Coca took the inbounds pass. He tried every trick in the book, including behind-the-back dribble, to shake free in the backcourt. He ran into a trio of Espanola defenders and turned the ball over.
With 22.6 seconds left, Flores drove in for a layup that made it a one-point game 34-33. With 11.6 seconds left to play, Espanola fouled Arroyos, who went to the free-throw line to shoot a one-and-one.
Arroyos missed the front end of the one-and-one. On the rebound, Salazar was fouled and he went to the free-throw line to shoot two free throws. Salazar coolly nailed both charity tosses to give Espanola the lead 35-34 with 10.2 seconds left.
On Capital’s ensuing possession, Augie Larranaga drove down the length of the court and sank a layup with 4.6 seconds left that could have given Capital the lead. Larranaga had crashed into Espanola’s James Archuleta while sinking the shot and was called for charging, negating the score and giving Espanola possession.
“Coach (Martinez) had told me to stay back,” Archuleta said. “I saw him (Larranaga) coming full blast. I stepped in front of him and took the charge.”
Capital fouled Christian Fernandez on the ensuing inbounds play. Fernandez sank one of two free throws to make the score 36-34. A desperation shot by Capital was off the mark and the Sundevils were state champions.
The players and coaches stormed the court while the media rushed to get photos of the joyous celebration in the center of the Pit’s floor. The building rocked with the roar from the thousands of Espanola fans in the stands.
Flores led all scorers with 12 points. The Sundevils had dominated the backboards, out-rebounding the Jaguars by a 38-20 margin. Several of Espanola’s baskets, which all proved to be crucial, came on third-and-fourth chances.
“Know you put every ounce into the game and have no regrets,” Flores said. “If you don’t, you’ll take it to your grave.”
As Coach Martinez said, these players will be champions now and forever.
A championship winning team welcomed home Sunday poses outside EVHS. A parade of supporters escorted the winning team home from Buffalo Thunder Sunday midday. Valley Daily Post photo