By Arnie Leshin
Let’s see, Elmer Chavez’ public school time as a teacher had expired after he coached the Santa Fe High girls basketball team to the 2014 4A state championship. So he headed south to little Mescalero Apache and six years later his 2A girls were hoisting the state championship trophy.
That’s about it, but the real story is that he was hired as athletic director, and shortly after the girls head basketball coach resigned, the school didn’t have to look far for a new coach. He stepped into a program that hadn’t done much celebrating as far as hoops went, and so relying on his experience of coaching college and high school ball, he patched the program up into state champions.
That came about Friday morning when his 2nd seeded Chiefs downed top-seeded Penasco, 69-54, at the UNM Dreamstyle Arena, the same place where his Santa Fe High team rallied from a 12-point deficit to turn back Los Lunas and hoist the blue trophy. As for the Panthers, it was the fourth time in the title game for them and they have yet to emerge victorious.
For Mescalero Apache, it was a chance to erase last year’s loss to Pecos in the final, when a Chiefs’ freshman tied the score ewith her only basket of the game and was also fouled with 0:6 left in regulation. But the 10 minutes that the officials spent checking on the remaining time while Chavez’ yearling stood at the foul line and nervously waited, was costly, and when the officials flipped her the ball, her shot rimmed out. In overtime, Pecos won by seven points.
But no such problem this time for the determined Chiefs. They went from a 10-10 first quarter, trailed 28-24 at halftime, and then put together a big third quarter, outscored Penasco 24-10, and coasted the rest of the way, outscoring the Panthers 45-26 over the last two quarters.
“My team has plenty of depth,” said Chavez, “and they (Penasco) was sticking with three starters, so I told my girls to pressure them, run, run, run, beat them off the boards, and make shots. And that was about when we took off.”
Chavez added that he also told his team to keep pushing the ball, that (Penasco) was dying, so just keep pushing the ball and their defense would wear out.
Penasco (29-3) broke away to a 5-0 lead until the Chiefs scored. Then it was 5-5 and Mescalero Apache followed by taking a 9-8 lead. The Panthers had their last lead at 15-12 and they maintained it to cart off a 28-24 halftime advantage.
But once the intermission ended, it was the Chiefs (27-3) taking over. A 3 by senior Fallon Velasquez put Mescalero back in front, 35-33, them came a 35-35 tie before the Chiefs went on a 12-0 run that included three-straight 3s, two by Velasquez,and she added a two-pointer that put the lead at 48-35 and 48-38 after three quarters.
It was Mescalero’s lead to keep. Whether Chavez’ strategy did the trick was key, for hot-shooting Velasquez worked the defense for a game-high 32 points, and inside she scrubbed the boards for 10 rebounds. She was on target from long range in making good on four of eight 3s, and the same from the foul line in converting 12 of 13. In the fourth quarter she found her way to 10 points that included an 8-for-8 perfecto from the foul line.
Three were 13 3s, with the Panrhers making the first four, and a fifth at the halftime buzzer. But the Chiefs then found the range and made five in a row after the intermission, with another coming at the start of the fourth quarter and it was 51-38, and the Chiefs had their seventh 3. A Penasco 3 in the last quarter rimmed a 55-41 deficit to 55-48, but Mescalero’s Ramona Fossum answered back with a 3-point play and it finished on a 9-4 run.
Chavez didn’t take long to call his first time when trailing 3-0. Then he called another one after a Penasco 3 made it 8-5. Shortly after, his team went in front 9-8. Then came the first of two ties, 10-10. From there it was a close game until the midway point of the 3rd quarter.
Yes, the Chiefs waited a year before taking the court for the championship game and coming away with their initial title, and Chavez waited six years to again hoist the blue trophy.
It was played without fans in the stands, only the players, coaches, trainers, referees and administrative officials were allowed.
It was something different but Chavez said if anything, his players were making enough noise of their own. “They are that way normally,” he added.