William Benjamin’s Las Cruces Bulldawgs were the state’s best team during the regular season and the state tournament in 2019-20.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Russell Gurule covered high school basketball for Enchantment Sports this past season. He was reporting on the New Mexico state basketball championships for our website in the Pit the night the NMAA announced its restrictions because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Unlike other media outlets, Enchantment Sports understood the urgent guidelines and informed the NMAA it agreed with them and would not request an exemption to staff the remained of the event.
Here’s Russell’s look back at the season he followed so closely. All of the photos are his.
By the way, his pre-state predictions were pretty spot-on.
By Russell Gurule
For Enchantment Sports
The 2019-20 high school basketball season was one of great expectations for so many.
A year ago last month — which now seems a lifetime away — I left the media room at Dreamstyle Arena recounting with all the teams that had won or lost during the state boys basketball tournament.
I recalled several players making declarations on how this year they and their team were going to win it all.
Many were still drenched with the finality of it all. That’s the emotion the state tournament brings, and one of the many reasons why we love it so much.
I took a mental note each time I heard those statements. I wanted, for each, that their predictions would come true.
Energy for this season seemed at an all-time high after a great summer of work. Yet there were many questions to be asked before the season.
I wondered if Atrisco Heritage could make it a three-peat after the graduation of DeMarcus Sutphen and if Cibola would rebound after winning just one game last season?
And how about Los Lunas, and life after former Tigers’ star Zanen Zeller?
I thought about Highland and Valley a lot. Would Highland be one of those special teams we talk about for years to come and how would Valley do, now that it was no longer the underdog?
And what about 5A powers Cleveland and Las Cruces High? Could either finally reach the mountain top after years of coming so close?
And, of course, there was Santa Fe. The Demons came oh-so-close to the title without injured sophomore star JB White in 2019. Were they the team to beat with a healthy White leading the way this season?
As far as possible surprise squad, several teams did that with solid records right out of the gate.
Volcano Vista had us ranking them at No. 1 for a good majority of the season.
Ja’kwon Hill and Dion Battle proved to be a formidable combination for the Hawks and Eldorado delighted us with the exploits of Deraje Agbaosi.
Las Cruces Oñate with Ricky Lujan made a splash early in the season proving to be a formidable challenge to Las Cruces High’s dominance in the south.
For most of the early season, it seemed that there could be at least one undefeated team come state tournament time. Las Cruces High, Oñate and Cleveland displayed the potential to make a historic run.
District play changed the fortunes of several teams such as Volcano Vista and Cleveland. But while not unbeaten, Las Cruces High continued to roll throughout the season emerging as the No. 1 state title contender.
I remember in that media room in what seems so long ago in 2019, Gallup’s head coach Joshua Dunlap stating to all of us how the Bengals would be a force this season.
Dunlap proved to be correct as Gallup reeled off long winning streaks throughout the season giving us another title contender outside of district 6-4A.
There were also some great performances this season by several individual players.
Who can forget Joziah Ramos’ 46-point game against Cleveland in a 30-point comeback?
Gallup’s Quinn A’ta’zhoon’s 47-point performance at Hobbs was an eye-opener and Highland’s Jose Murrillo’s triple-double against Rio Rancho was impressive: 21 points, 13 rebounds and 10 blocks.
This year’s state tournament was like no other for many reasons. Las Cruces High which was my pick to win it all.
The Bulldawgs had the opportunity to establish themselves as the premier program in the state for this decade if they could achieve the blue trophy.
Highland my pick in 4A was going for its first title in 42 years. Pecos was going for a four-peat in 2A.
The chance for all this to happen would’ve made headlines. Instead, by the second day of the tournament things wouldn’t be the same.
The focus switched from basketball to health safety when coronavirus took center stage.
I was at The Pit during the quarterfinal when rumors started to circulate that fans would not be allowed in after that night and the tournament may not even finish.
It was surreal, and after the night’s games Sally Martinez, executive director of the NMAA, announced that the games would go on without fans and a cap of 100 people had been placed for attendance of each game.
The Pit was like a morgue after the announcement as excitement for that day and for the tournament had left the grand building.
It would be up to the teams to bring it back.
No parents would be allowed in if they weren’t part of the team or essential staff. The Pit would be empty for the semifinal and championship rounds.
All parents and fans could do was watch on a paid stream if they wanted to see their sons and daughters play for the last time in high school.
Watch parties sprung up around Albuquerque as parents wanted to support in any way they could. But it wouldn’t be the same as in person to experience their child’s biggest sports moment.
The games did go on and Las Cruces High marched through the tournament in dominating fashion with the blue trophy as 5A state champions over a very resilient Capital team that surprised many.
The 4A championship game between Highland and Valley was a thriller that went into overtime with Valley coming away as two-time state champions. Valley showed toughness and has earned the title as champion.
In 3A, Albuquerque’s Bosque Prep won its first state title, which is impressive for a fairly new school.
Pecos did get that four-peat over a very athletic Magdalena team in 2A. Pecos head coach, Ira Harge Jr., lead the Panthers to the title with an incredible 26-game win streak.
The tournament was special as there’s plenty of stories still left to be told. In a way, this might have been one of the best tournaments in history given the uncertainty and the adversity.
Fans or no fans, one thing is for certain. It was truly settled on the court.
Russell Gurule was born and raised in Albuquerque and is a long-time resident. He graduated from Highland High and also attended Hope Christian. Russell is a long-time observer of New Mexico Lobo and high school athletics. Logistics is his day job. Basketball and politics are his passions. To contact Russell with comments of tips, please email EnchantmentSportsNM@gmail.com