For Pecos, many long-distance relationships
There is no parsing what awaits the Pecos boys and girls basketball programs for 12 days in February — they literally will begin the journey of (almost) 1,000 miles.
Beginning with a Feb. 2 trip to Clayton in the northeast corner of the state, both teams will travel an estimated 997 miles for three District 7-2A road doubleheaders in that span and end with a Valentine’s Day trip to Santa Rosa. Factor in trips to restaurants to feed starving players, and Pecos will surely top 1,000 miles of travel during that stretch.
All of this for the honor of playing in what will likely be the toughest district in 2A, with the Yellowjackets, Texico and the Lions.
Leave it to a coach who knows all about traveling — Pecos head girls coach Ron Drake, who travels from Sandia Park to Pecos every day for practice — to sum up the challenges that face the Panthers and Lady Panthers.
“That’s the biggest challenge right there — getting off the bus and being ready to play, Drake said. “Those are long rides, so you know they’re going to be sleeping and tired.”
When the New Mexico Activities Association finished its latest classification and alignment plan in the summer of 2017, it placed Pecos into a district that starts just 27 miles east of Santa Fe and covers the northeastern quarter of the state. Even though the Pecos Independent School district lost its appeal to move into the much closer and Santa Fe-centric District 2-2A, there was a sense from the coaches that playing in 7-2A might be better from a competitive standpoint.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” said Ira Harge Jr., Pecos head boys basketball coach. “We have to do our homework before we play them. It’s not that we didn’t have that before. It’s just a little more competitive atmosphere.”
How competitive? Last year’s iteration of that district — 5-3A, when the state had six classes — had all four teams reach the Class 3A State Tournament in both brackets and two reached the semifinals. The classification and alignment shuffle kept Tucumcari in 3A, and Pecos slipped into its spot in the newly christened 7-2A. Thus, it can boast that all of its boys and girls teams made the state tournament and is the home of reigning state champions (Texico on the girls side, Pecos on the boys). The boys side can say it owned three-fourths of the Final Four spots from last year’s 3A bracket with Santa Rosa, Texico and the Panthers.
The district should again be well represented in the postseason. That might be especially true on the boys side, according to Harge. Texico, which lost to Pecos in the boys title game, should be among the contenders. Santa Rosa, which fell to the Wolverines in the 3A semifinals, lost only two players from last year’s team.
Harge said the sleeper in the district could be Clayton, which returns its entire team and has a pair of post players 6-foot-3 and taller.
“These teams are typically in the top five, and at least the top eight, every year,” Harge said. “Now, you have these top-five teams playing each other twice and hopefully three or four times for district and state championships. So, the players have to be sharper, and your coaching skills have to be sharper. It will make me a better coach, for sure.”
The girls side of the district might not be as daunting, as Santa Rosa appears to be in a rebuilding mode, but Texico, Pecos and Clayton all could be seeded in the top eight by March. Drake added that his program also has a challenging nondistrict schedule, with appearances in this week’s Al Armendariz Tournament at Capital, the St. Michael’s Lady Horsemen Christmas Tournament at the end of December and the Northern Rio Grande Tournament to open the new year. Pecos also will play Peñasco, last year’s 2A runner-up, and Tucumcari, which reached the 3A quarterfinals.
The games, though, will be only part of the equation. Harge and Drake know how mundane road trips are, and the school’s activities bus doesn’t have much distraction from watching the scenery go by. Harge said the bus, which is three years old, has charging ports for cellphones, which means a lot of parents’ data plans will be stretched to the limits in February.
“If you can get a hotspot, you know they will entertain themselves,” Harge said.
As for which trip is the harder one to endure, Drake and Harge had different answers. The only thing they agreed on was that it won’t be to Santa Rosa.
“I think Clayton,” Drake said. “It’s further north, and I’ve never been to Clayton.”
Harge said the drive to Clayton is quicker because the route uses I-25 for most of it. The trip to Texico is mostly on two-lane highways, especially once the bus hits Fort Sumner. Then the line of small towns leading into the Clovis area slows the trip even further.
“You hit Fort Sumner, get up to 60, 65 [mph], and then you come back down to 20, 30 when you’re driving through those smaller towns,” Harge said.
All the Panthers and Lady Panthers can do it take it one step — and one mile — at a time.