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Shaun Griswold
Source New Mexico

Last year, high school junior Madisen Valdez was dribbling alone at her home in Dulce, New Mexico.

COVID-19 forced the Santa Fe Indian School to send all students home and cancel all activities, including sports.

Administrators eventually found a way to allow its students to play at a school near where they live. Student athletes logged on to their computers to meet with their teachers and classmates at SFIS. When class was over, they put on jerseys for schools in Bernalillo or Farmington — or whatever school they could find where athletics were still allowed.

Valdez, Jicarilla Apache, was one of several students that still did not have an option to play. Dulce had also canceled athletics.

“It was really difficult for me to deal with it, because I played every year since I was in like, second grade. It was really disappointing,” Valdez said Thursday night, March 10, from the top of the ramp at The Pit that leads onto the court. “I understood, because there was a pandemic, and it was really spreading. And I understood that my community was just trying to keep our citizens safe.”

Now, she’s playing in the girls 3A championship game. In a year she went from dribbling alone in rural New Mexico to playing in front of thousands at The Pit.

“It’s so surreal. I’ve always wanted to be on this court, especially as a Lady Brave,” she said. “And I’ve always looked up to anybody who has played in this gym.

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Thursday, The Pit hosted a first athletic moment for many, though it started with a slight hesitation as people returned to beloved community gatherings.

The state basketball tournament is one of the first major statewide athletic events since public health protections like mask requirements and capacity limits were lifted in February. The University of New Mexico operates the arena, and the requirement for proof of vaccine or negative COVID test to gain entry was also lifted last month.

It was the first time a band leader from Hobbs visited Albuquerque. It was the first time a dancer from Goddard performed in front of a large crowd. It was the first time in years some fans saw not only the players on the court but lifelong friends and family who gathered from across New Mexico to watch the games.

But it was also evident that the pandemic is still active. While The Pit did not have any restrictions, many of the fans came from tribal nations hit hard by the virus that still have pandemic protections, including mask mandates.

Gallup Bengals’ Michaela Mccurtain (32) guards Juliana Anaya from Bernalillo High School on Thursday evening at The Pit in a girls 4A semifinal game of the state tournament. Anaya is the Gatorade New Mexico girls basketball player of the year and led her team to a 63-59 win. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

For many, it was the first time engaging with others and soaking up the energy from their communities that filled an estimated 10,000 seats in The Pit.

“That shows how big our (Native) community is, and how we support each other and how we stick together, and just how many people love basketball,” Valdez said.

SFIS requires students to wear masks, so Valdez and her teammates were masked up when off the basketball court.

A couple thousand arrived for the first game at 9:30 a.m. Yvonne Hautzinger walked down to her seats wearing a homemade multi-layer mask that matched the red, black and white colors on the shirt she was wearing to support the Crownpoint High School Eagles.

“For those of us that live in town, it’s nice to have your team come to town and make you feel like you’re experiencing your home,” said Hautzinger, who is originally from Crownpoint but lives in Los Lunas now.

Crownpoint lost to the No. 1 seed Robertson, 51-37. Jayden Jenkins led Roberston with 23 points and 14 rebounds. 

Hautzinger, Diné, will be there in the same seats two rows behind the home team bench, she said, her spot for decades and her first time back since 2019. Even with Crownpoint losing, Hautzinger kept her seat warm Thursday, staying for the next five games until 9:00 p.m. when Bernalillo upset Gallup 63-59 in the 4A semifinal.

She shared the sense of community that basketball brings. The athletics on display are the main event, but the feeling of being in an arena with thousands of Native people from all over the state, she said, is empowering.

“It makes me feel like a non-minority in this environment. I’m comfortable, like I’m home,” she said. “(Basketball) is the most competitive sport we have on the reservations. Well, one of them. It’s like our professional sports. I feel proud. I feel different. I feel like it’s OK to be Native American.”

While rez ball was fully on display, the camaraderie from the gathering at The Pit could be felt by others, too.

During the matchup between Hobbs and La Cueva, a corner of the arena was animated by the Taskervitch band — named after Hall of Fame Coach Ralph Tasker — that made its way from southeast New Mexico with the Hobbs basketball team.

Leading the usual percussion and wind players you see in a school band was a guitarist named Aydn Kaays, who was shredding between baskets. After Hobbs finally won the game 41-39, he carried his two amps up the 32 rows of seats to the concourse and set his sights on seeing what Albuquerque has to offer.

“As soon as I walked in here, it was just, man, I was starstruck, I really was,” he said.

Spirit squads from high schools across New Mexico performed during the halftime of each game. While fans saw it as entertainment, it’s serious for the performers who had their routine twists and jumps judged as part of competition before their state championships.

Destiny Gonzalez from Goddard High School said she didn’t dance last year and was thrilled to be able to perform for crowds larger than the small collection of parents that were allowed to watch them perform at competitions.

“We didn’t have any competitions other than our own. And there was no one there. So you’re performing for no one,” she said. “But it feels great.”

By 1:30 p.m., the arena was nearing capacity. In the next four games, Native American excellence was the showcase, and fans from the Navajo Nation, Pueblos and Apache Nations filled The Pit, making it louder than many Lobos games.

Kirtland Central beat Portales 48-43. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez was giving fist bumps to the girls after their victory and even picked up a mask made by Hautzinger. Nez wore his mask the entire time. Earlier in the day, the Navajo Nation Department of Health announced there had been a decline in positive cases but reaffirmed its public health order to require masks in schools and other public spaces.

When tip-off hit at 3:30 p.m. for the SFIS and Tohatchi game, the energy caused the metal benches around the arena to vibrate. Nez was leading the Navajo fans in the wave. Supporters were having their own competition trying to drown out each other’s chants. When referees made a controversial call, it was hard to determine if those were boos or cheers filling the arena.

“That’s really how strong our Native communities are. We thrive with the support and the love that we give each other. Just being here, it gives me chills, because I know how much COVID has impacted our students,” SFIS Superintendent Christie Abeyta said. “Which was never anything that we could have ever imagined, but to have lived through and now coming back to the return of gatherings or in-person games and all that we yearn for, it’s a blessing, and we’re so very grateful.”

Abeyta, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Ohkay Owingeh, and Isleta, noted the strong communal ties that bond Indigenous people.

“It’s such a wonderful feeling to be in The Pit with thousands of Native people who all support each other,” she said. “And it’s reciprocated, you know, when we’re playing, we have all the Navajo fans unless you’re playing the Navajo teams.”

The game was tied going into the fourth quarter, and Tohatchi came out immediately with a 6-0 run to give themselves the largest lead of the game.

SFIS mounted a comeback, and with two minutes left in the game, Valdez was found streaking down the lane to hit a layup, giving the Lady Braves the lead they would not give up. The girl that didn’t have anywhere to play last year was now celebrating with her team and thousands of supporters.

Everyone stuck around to watch the 5A girls semifinal won by Volcano Vista over Farmington 67-55. Native representation was all over this game too, Farmington’s roster and head coach are Native American. Future Lobos Jaelyn Bates, San Felipe, and Natalia Chavez, Cochiti, are the top two players for the undefeated Volcano Vista Hawks.

But the main event for Native fans in the stands was the Gallup matchup with Bernalillo.

It was another game where the teams exchanged baskets up until the final minutes. Gallup is the defending state champ and had the majority of fans on their side. Bernalillo had the player of the year, Juliana Aragon, and seemingly the entire town on the south end of The Pit.

Bernalillo won the game 63-59 and will appear in the state championship game for the first time since 1983. Four steals and 13 points from Leah Valdez helped the Spartans pull the upset.

“I was nervous. Really nervous. Scared. I was excited but mostly nervous,” Valdez said. “I’ve never seen so many people in a room like that. But once we started playing, I got used to it.”

Valdez is from Cochiti Pueblo, which still has roads closed and mask mandates in place. Although her entire family couldn’t make it to the game, many did come to Albuquerque to give her a strong cheering section.

“I think I feel better that the Pueblo is still in lockdown, because it makes the Pueblo safer,” she said. “I’m able to come and play, and I feel safer if the Pueblo is still closed.”

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