Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo
If anything dogs Chris Valdez, it’s the age thing.
One might think that an 18-5 season, a district title and an earned opportunity to host another Class 2A Region 3 postseason tournament sends a message.
Or that despite rotating through players, the Bobcats’ hosting of that tournament at Durango High School this weekend for the fifth consecutive year might flash like a neon sign.
“People keep saying ‘Oh, they’re too young; oh, they’re too young,” Valdez said of this year’s team, which has just two seniors.
“We’re not too young! We’re basketball players. We know how to win.”
That much should be clear, especially given the Bobcats’ recent history.
This weekend marks the fifth year in a row the Bobcats have hosted their regional tournament. Last year, they lost in the tournament final, just missing a CHSAA Class 2A Boys Basketball State Championships berth, but they won the tournament three consecutive years before that to make it to the state dance.
Ignacio, after all, is a basketball town, Valdez said.
“Ignacio is all about basketball, really,” he said. “The main sport here is basketball.”
That’s manifested itself in a robust farm system that starts in grade school and continues to the high school level.
With hundreds of kids starting in the community recreation league, Ignacio’s ballers learn fundamentals from the start.
“We work really hard on the fundamental parts of the game,” Valdez said.
“We’re not having to teach a lot of the basic fundamentals ... by the time they get to us, we can start working strategy.”
The centerpiece of the Bobcats’ strategy takes place between the baskets.
“One of our mainstays is our defense. We try to play hard defense and communicate,” Valdez said. “It’s all a package.
“We try not to get beat off the dribble, we try to cut off the penetration and we try to play as physical as we can.”
The early season result was a torrent of fouls; the late, a turgid turnover margin – particularly once the Bobcats have tested themselves.
This year alone, Ignacio played in the Aztec and Kirtland (N.M.) tournaments, played Shiprock (N.M.) and Pagosa Springs twice and beat Monticello, then ranked third in Utah.
All of those schools have bigger programs, and Ignacio wants to play them, even if it means defeat. Although the Bobcats beat Shiprock and Monticello, they lost both games to Class 3A Pagosa Springs and picked up another in a loss to Piedra Vista (N.M.) in the Aztec tournament.
The tangible effect on the IHS season is a worse record and worse state ranking.
“But for experience, it helps the heck out of us,” Valdez said. “It gives us an opportunity with our scheduling to play hard teams so we can be more competitive later in the year.
And tonight, “later” is now.
This year’s Bobcats fit into Ignacio’s fundamental-and-defense-heavy system because they’ve learned how to win with quiet determination. Sometimes too quiet, Valdez said, which is a problem they’re trying to fix since it cost them a loss against Telluride.
On top of defense, the Bobcats have been mindful of what the coaching staff is calling “EEELS” – excitement, energy, enthusiasm, leadership and a sense of urgency.
Those, Valdez said, are the only areas in which his team sometimes comes up short, and they’re “what we need because we’ve got talent, we’ve got shooters, we’ve got post-up players, we’ve got defenders,” he said.
Paonia (10-12), the Bobcats’ regional tournament semifinal opponent at 5:30 p.m. today at DHS, has a great point guard and a great post, but on the other hand not a lot of size, Valdez said. But the Eagles have lost a majority of their games by just single digits, he added, so the Bobcats need to keep their fundamentals and their EEELS up to snuff.
A win over the Eagles today, then a win over the victor in today’s Lutheran-Sargent semifinal, will put the Bobcats into the state tournament for the fourth time in five years.
Perhaps that will finally be enough to lay that pesky age thing to rest.