By Arnie Leshin
It was no secret, it was out in the open all of this high school basketball season, and only three times did the tall and taller Las Cruces boys fall, you know, the adage, “The bigger they are the harder they fall.”
And in Saturday night‘s probable final sports event of the school year in New Mexico, the one for the 5A state championship, it proved to be a tough task for a quality Capital High team that turned back 29 of 34 opponents, a senior-laden lineup that was coming off impressive state tournament wins over Las Cruces Centennial, Albuquerque Eldorado, and Rio Rancho Cleveland.
It was a team of 2nd seeded Jaguars that didn’t get by with size. They had a 6-foot-4 senior in Chano Herrera, a 6-foot senior in Seth Arroyos, and the rest of the roster was in the 5-7 to 5-11 range. But they managed to prevail under head coach Benny Gomez with experience, confidence, talent and patience.
But as has been the case most times during the season, they were out sized but never had to look as high as in the 65-53 setback to the top-seeded Bulldawgs. Start with a 6-9 sophomore in Isaiah Carr, who weighs 180 pounds, has the look of a good young athlete, and found his way for 14 points and scrubbed the boards for 11 rebounds.
Kaden Self, a 6-6 senior, didn’t do much damage scoring wise, making just one basket, but he did block three shots and grab seven boards. Going down, there was 6-5 senior Salvador Nevaraz depositing 10 points, 6-4 senior Ray Brown coming away with four steals, handing out the same number of assists, and adding seven points, and the high scorer with 16 points was 6-3 senior Gonzalo Carbalan.
And that was the strength of this team coached by William Benjamin, Sr., and with the addition of his son, William Benjamin, Jr., a 6-foot sophomore who accounted for 11 points. Not bad balance with four players in double figures. And can’t forget 6-4 senior Joseph Montoya who contributed four points. The shorties were two 5-10 sophomores and Capital had six of them that size.
The three Bulldawg losses were twice to district rival Las Cruces Onate and to Albuquerque Volcano Vista. They won the other 31.
But there was quit in the Jaguars. They played hard until the final buzzer, but they had trouble getting into the paint with Carr and company looking down on them. They had to depend on outside shooting and making foul shots, but their shoot making wasn’t enough to keep them in the game that had all-time leading program career scorer Antonio “TJ” Sanchez come up with the team-high 16 points against taller defenders.
They did get the game’s initial basket when Arroyos, who was having a chili-hot tournament, opened with a short jumper. But Calbalan’s drive to the basket brought the first of two ties at 2-2. Sanchez’ side shot kept his side in front 4-2, and then came the second and final deadlock at 4-4 on a tap-in from Carr.
Montoya’s bucket was the second of only three lead changes and the Bulldawgs were up 6-4. Dominick Luna, a 5-10 Jaguar junior, then tossed in his first of two 3s and Capital had the lead back at 7-6. It held it by maintaining a 11-10 advantage after one quarter.
But when the second quarter began, Las Cruces took the lead for good on a Nevarez 2 that made it 12-11, and the chase, the Jags tried to keep up, but always had to look up. The Bulldwags went on 15-4 run in the second quarter and upped their previous slim lead to 30-21 at halftime.
The third quarter began okay when 5-7 senior Brandon Saiz took a pass from Sanchez and scored a layup. But back came Las Cruces three-straight buckets before Luna put in a 2. Carr countered with a dunk and then Capital responded with a run of its own.
There was a basket from the perimeter from Sanchez, Saiz made a pair of foul shots, Sanchez scored again on a 3-point play, and the 38-25 gap was cut to 38-32. But a 10-2 Bulldwags run led by six points from Carbalan put them on top 48-34 after three quarters.
In the final eight minutes, Gomez called two late time outs, once when his team was down 58-44 and again when it trailed 64-47. But he wasn’t calling in the reserves, he was going to allow his starters to stay on the court. In the final minutes, they did outscore Las Cruces 6-1.
The Bulldwags, who should change their nicknames to the Giants, responded every time Capital tried to close the gap. It was 52-42 after Saiz and Sanchez scored back-to-back baskets, but Benjamin and Carr answered back with a pair of freebies each, and 5-10 Jaguar senior Elias Rodriguez put in two of his own, but 62-49 was the closest they could get.
Luna was good for 10 points, Saiz had nine, Arroyos and Herrera seven each, and two apiece from Rodriguez and 5-10 junior Angel Parra.
It was the second straight year that the City Different finished second in the state 5A final. Last season it was Santa Fe High losing a close one versus Albuquerque Atrisco Heritage.
From up this way this time it was the top-seeded Pecos boys winning their fourth state title in a row by handing previously undefeated 2nd seeded Magdalena a 63-53 setback to finish 29-1 and total 112 wins and only eight losses in the last four years, and going 83-7 in the first three state tournament championship years. It was the first loss for the Steers in 32 games.
In the 4A boys final, No. 1 seed Albuquerque Valley won a tight one, 67-61, over 3rd seeded Albuquerque Highland in overtime.
In 3A, 3rd seeded Albuquerque Bosque Charter played top seed and district rival Albuquerque Sandia Prep for the fifth time and came away with a 65-57 overtime victory.
In 1A, No. 1 seeded Melrose hoisted the blue trophy after topping No. 2 seeded Maxwell, 59-56.
Melrose, in fact was the only school to emerge with two championships, also winning the girls 1A title with a 47-35 triumph over Logan.
In 2A girls, it was Elmer Chavez’ 2nd seeded Mescalero Apache team downing No. 1 seeded Penasco, 69-54, after losing to Pecos in last year’s final. It was Pecos that was the state double-winner last year.
In 3A, top seeded Navajo Prep turned back 3rd seeded Tohatchi, 43-34.
In 4A, it was No. 1 seed Los Lunas knocking of No. 2 seed Kirtland Central, 47-33.