IGNACIO – When asked what makes the Ignacio girls basketball program’s mentality unique, senior captain Makayla Howell didn’t hesitate with her response.
“This year, our big component was playing as a team and remembering that we’re a family,” Howell said Saturday following the team’s Class 2A Region 8 championship win against Rocky Ford. “I really think that’s what won us this game. None of us gave up on each other. I fouled out of the game, but that only fueled them more. Anytime something happened, we didn’t get down on ourselves. We picked each other up and we played as a team.”
That’s the Ignacio way. And for a fiercely-proud town of a little more than 800 people that sits at the headquarters of the Southern Ute Reservation, Howell’s comment carries a lot of weight. After watching both the IHS boys and girls basketball teams reach the Great 8 year after year growing up, she understands how much it means to be a Bobcat and is now leading the girls team to another appearance. Because for Howell, and countless future Bobcats that roam the court after jam-packed home games, basketball is a way of life.
Both the Ignacio boys and girls teams will travel Wednesday to Loveland to play in the Colorado High School Activities Association’s Class 2A Great 8 state basketball tournament. It’s the second time in school history that both teams reached the quarterfinals in the same season. The first time it occurred was just two seasons ago in 2018.
The Ignacio girls will tip off first at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Budweiser Events Center, as the Bobcats (18-5) earned the No. 7 seed and will face No. 2 Holyoke (22-1). The No. 8 IHS boys (18-4) will follow directly after the girls against No. 1 Highland (23-1).
Justa Whitt is in her second stint as head coach of the girls team. This will be her second Great 8 appearance in three seasons leading IHS and fourth in seven seasons for the program dating back to 2013. Chris Valdez has coached the boys since 2000, and Thursday will mark the eighth time the Bobcats have made it this far under his leadership.
Even after a decade of unparalleled success for both programs, Valdez realizes Ignacio basketball is shaped by its players, not by the coaches.
“It has nothing to do with coaching, I think,” said Valdez, who nearly resigned at the end of the 2018 season but is once again leading the team back to state.
“It’s all about the kids and how much they want to work. Yeah, we put them in the right direction and write up the plays we want to run on the floor, but when it comes down to it, it’s about the kids who want to win more than anything, and you can tell. This group that we have now, both the boys and the girls, they all played AAU when they were in fifth through eighth grade. You can tell the difference between this group of kids and other groups of kids that don’t get to go to state because they’ve got the background.”
While the program is shaped by the players, both coaching staffs share similar philosophies of preaching hard work, grit, an at times overwhelming defensive pressure and remarkable 3-point accuracy.
There is overlap between the two head coaches. Whitt was an assistant coach on Vadlez’s staff in 2018.
Whitt was a post player on the University of Colorado women’s basketball team that reached the Elite 8 in 1993 and played under Hall of Fame coach Ceal Barry, and she knows what it takes to reach the highest level.
“Playing for coach Barry made me understand what it takes to play at one of the highest levels,” Whitt said. “Those are the references I come from when I need to do what is best for my kids. I know what I have to do to prepare them. That’s one of the biggest things for this week is that we have to make sure these kids are prepared, understanding what we’re facing. ... I have to remember that they’re high school kids and they want to have fun. I still want to get the point across to be intense, to give everything we’ve got, and they’ve done a great job of finding that balance.”
Valdez understands what it takes, too. After coaching for more than 25 years, he believes basketball has helped shape Ignacio’s community for the better.
“The reason why I do it is I think I can teach kids, first of all, how to be better people,” Valdez said. “How to be successful. How to pick someone up when they knock ’em down. And I ain’t gonna candy-coat it, there’s kids in this community that are hard to coach. With family economics or attitude or whatever it happens to be, you know, that’s who we are. I understand that. I don’t look down on people who maybe weren’t raised the way I was or as disciplined as I want them to be, but I’m sure going to try to mold them in the right direction so that they can be the best people for our community.
“We may not have talent to win. We may not have the coaching to win. But I’ll tell you, they’re going to be inspired to play this weekend, and they’ll give everything they have. Whether we win by one or lose by 50, we’ll be playing our best game, and we’ll put everything on the line. Because that’s what I demand of them, and that’s what they believe in.”
Whitt said the Bobcats will hang the “NO MORE STOLEN SISTERS” sign behind the bench at state. It has been displayed outside of the entrance to the gymnasium since January. The team has supported the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement since before the start of the season. Whitt expects fans will make the seven-hour trek en masse to support the Bobcats this weekend.
To Whitt, that’s just what a family-first, basketball-obsessed community does.
It’s that support that lies at the heart of the Bobcats’ success.
“We’ve got one of the biggest fan bases in the state; the whole damn town comes with us and then some,” she said. “It’s great to have that and knowing you’ve got the support in the crowd. You’ve got multiple family members for each kid and you’ve got people in the stands that don’t have kids that love to support Ignacio basketball just because.
“We’ve got a little extra support this year with the MMIW stuff. I feel that helped bring our community a little closer, our fan base just that much more tight-knit. Being able to express those things that we needed to make people aware of, away from just our little community, I just think that it’s all come full circle here, and we’re getting the reward for what we’re doing.”