Lobos playing in Hobbs to spread team’s influence
HOBBS — Press, Eagles, puh-ress!
Walk into the Hobbs High School gymnasium and you can practically hear those words roll out in the West Virginia twang of the building’s namesake, Ralph Tasker. The late, legendary coach of the Hobbs boys basketball team for nearly half a century, he won more games, sent more players to the NBA and intimidated the living bejeezus out of more rivals than anyone in state history.
His Eagles teams were known for three things: boatloads of scoring (Hobbs averaged 114 points a game one season), a relentless full-court press, and the sleeved T-shirt jerseys that looked oddly retro cool when Hobbs ran onto the court.
On Sunday in an unprecedented event, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team will venture into the gymnasium named after the late Tasker when it meets the University of the Southwest in a regular-season matchup whose only purpose is to spread the UNM influence to the state’s Permian Basin.
Lobos head coach Paul Weir set it up as part of his attempt to win over New Mexico’s basketball fans, particularly those in a place where UNM is arguably the fifth-most watched team behind Texas Tech, New Mexico State, UTEP and, of course, the Hobbs Eagles.
An NAIA school with approximately 1/30th the enrollment of UNM, Southwest is technically the road team despite being just a 10-minute drive from Tasker Arena. The Mustangs (3-8) are, by all accounts, playing the role of David in this laughably imbalanced matchup of college basketball programs separated by millions of dollars in annual spending.
In reality, the Lobos (5-6) could use all the advantages they can get. They limp into Sunday’s game having lost two straight and five of their last six. They came into the season with expectations of a postseason tournament run, of flirtations with the top 25, of making the kind of noise they did in they heyday of former coach Steve Alford.
It has been anything but, and the frustration is starting to show. A recent blowout loss on the road to NMSU left two Aggies players insinuating that the Lobos had given up. A recent home loss to Colorado saw Weir storm out of a postgame news conference when his team’s effort was questioned. Last week’s home loss to Penn saw Weir uncharacteristically charge onto the court to argue a call, drawing an immediate technical foul.
“Look, at the end of the day, we don’t have a margin for error,” he said. “We just don’t. Our team does not go into games playing on this large cushion, so every possession really matters. I’m trying to implore that amongst our team; that every single thing out there matters and I, obviously inherently, feel that anyways.”
In many ways, Weir is trying to install the modern version of Tasker’s game plan. He wants pressure defense and turbo-speed offense. He wants the up-and-down tempo and the “wow” factor that comes with it.
Tasker’s Eagles ran that to perfection in the 49 years he was there. He won 12 state championships with it, sending 13 players into the professional ranks and dozens more onto college scholarships. Known for his Coke-bottle glasses and slightly oversized sports coats, Tasker’s main phrase was the, “Press, Eagles, puh-ress,” that defined a dynasty that spanned decades and left him as the winningest high school coach in the country for a short time.
When Sunday’s game tips off, listen closely. Somewhere up in the rafters, up there with all the banners and dusty beams is the ghost of the most famous high school coach New Mexico has ever known. If Weir has his way, he’ll somehow harness his Midas touch and start to turn around a season that has gone sour in a hurry.
Driving conditions to Hobbs were downright ugly Saturday. Snow-packed roads out of Albuquerque weren’t too bad, but the nastiest stretch by far was a 100-mile span of U.S. 285 from Interstate 40 at Clines Corners going south to Roswell. More than a dozen cars were stranded on the side of the road, including one sports utility vehicle that had caught on fire about 30 miles north of Roswell. … The Lobos have never played a game in Hobbs before. … UNM heads to Colorado Springs after the game. The Lobos open Mountain West Conference play Wednesday at Air Force.