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Ignacio star Tucson selects NAIA, Bacone College

Tucson to play basketball for the Warriors
Bacone College men's basketball head coach Ruben Little Head jokes with Ignacio's Gabe Tucson that part of playing at Bacone includes bringing the boss coffee (with two sugars) at 8:30 each morning. Tucson committed to the NAIA-level Warriors on Thursday inside IHS Gymnasium. (Joel Priest/Special to the Herald)

Among multiple things for which former Hotchkiss head baseball coach Blake Carlquist would have been thankful for this spring, one may have been the fact he wouldn’t have to watch Ignacio’s Gabe Tucson dealing.

“We just kept chipping away … found a way to get some runs,” he’d said after HHS’ two-game takeover of IHS Field. “But hats off to that lefty (Tucson); he’s a good arm, and it’s not going to be an easy day if he’s in the strike zone.”

Now the skipper at the Hotchkiss-Paonia collective North Fork, Carlquist could easily have been Nucla coach Randy Gabriel or Dove Creek’s Trent Daves with that remark, also fortunate not to see Ignacio’s ace in 2A/1A San Juan Basin League play in 2022.

Not that Tucson hasn’t wanted to be out on the diamond; the multisport standout just had a different goal.

Ignacio's Gabe Tucson turns baseline around a Lotus School for Excellence defender during 2A-Region IV action at neutral Vail Mountain High School in the 2021-22 season. (Joel Priest/Special to the Herald)

Tucson made his next destination known on Thursday by signing a letter of intent to study at and play National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics-level basketball for Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

“It did feel a little unusual,” a grinning Tucson said about having a couple dozen witnesses observe him inside IHS Gymnasium without the rock in his hand, “but I was glad my family was … watching me make the next move in my life.”

“I just wanted to go somewhere that was different, continue playing with Natives and … yeah, there’s mixed emotions,” he continued. “I’m feeling very anxious, but excited.”

“Well when he came out for the workouts last month, right away I could tell from his charisma, his body language, his energy that he was giving off that he’s a basketball player,” stated Bacone men’s basketball head coach Ruben Little Head. Little Head first addressed the crowd – filled with Tucson’s family, classmates, IHS staff as well as Bobcat assistant basketball coach Damon White Thunder – in his Northern Cheyenne before speaking in English.

“What I liked about him was his open courtness, his ability to fill the lanes and his … being very positive. That’s the word I want to use: positive,” Little Head continued. “As far as being a team player, somebody’s coached him good!”

“Gabe proved that he was the best player on the floor, and the good part about him is that it’s not about him,” longtime IHS boss Chris Valdez had said during the 2021-22 campaign. “He was sharing the ball, trying to make things happen for his team – trying to help the team get better. That’s when you know you’ve got a future, when your best player is working with everybody to get them to his level and not just playing above them.”

“He’s encouraged all of us to do better,” sophomore guard Phillip Quintana had said after Ignacio’s season-ending loss to Aurora-based Lotus School for Excellence in the 2A-Region IV semifinals. “He holds the team to a standard and we came up to his standard; we played with him.”

During his two years as a primary varsity weapon, Tucson helped the Bobcats go 14-3 overall during the COVID-compressed 2020-21 season, then 16-7 in 2021-22 as Ignacio’s lone returning starter. And after averaging 11.9 points per game as a junior, he netted 18.2 (plus 9.8 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.9 steals) per outing this winter en route to earning first team all-SJBL and honorable mention All-2A distinctions.

“We couldn’t be here without him for sure; he was the best of us at rebounds, points – best on the team for sure,” sophomore post Gabe Cox had said after the Lotus loss. “He’s been the best player the past two years, really carried our team.”

“I’m hoping he hits another growth spurt; if he hits 6-3 or 6-4, that’d be awesome,” Little Head said. “But he’s a big guard, plays the 1-2 positions – maybe even the 3 – and I envision him a slasher in the open court. And he has a pretty good outside shot, from what I’ve seen.”

“Myself, I like offense, but I love defense, and if he works hard for me in that department he’ll earn minutes!”

Defense would indeed appear to be the aspect Little Head, named Bacone’s head coach in February 2021, wants to see improve; 10 times in 2021-22 the Warriors, part of the NAIA’s independent-filled Continental Athletic Conference, surrendered 100 or more points.

Reaching triple digits offensively just once, Bacone posted a 3-25 overall.

Mentioning interests in studying sports management or radiology, Tucson noted Bacone became his choice because of its IHS-like population of around 300 students.

“Yeah, big time,” he said. “I don’t want to be a ‘number’ to some professor; I want to get to know my teachers and them get to know me. I’m wanting to make a difference, and … it felt like home.”

“Cooking, rafting, hiking, watching movies. ... We just do a lot of team-bonding where they can get more acquainted with each other, get to know each other,” said Little Head. “Because if you know each other well outside the court, when you’re on-court you’re going to play your roles better.”