POV: The Pit!


Charly Skelton

The Pit. Every young basketball player’s dream is to play in the state championship on the Lobos’ floor to hoist the trophy that’ll live in the record books for all of history. 

One hundred and sixty teams from 1A to 5A, boys and girls, started the tournament vying for the 2023 title. At the end of March 11, 2023, 10 teams, through hard work and determination and, of course, good basketball, were able to lift the blue trophy and call themselves New Mexico State Champions.

In this tournament, I was blessed to have the opportunity to broadcast St. Michaels’ First Round home game against Tucumcari for Sports Primo. From the moment I walked into the building 30 minutes before tip-off, the energy was electric. The smell of popcorn and the squeaking of the shoes meant that we were ready to see some great basketball. Although St. Michael’s blew out Tucumcari, the energy was unmatched. 

The size of St. Michael’s gym is small. So with students taking up one quarter of the gymnasium, the atmosphere was loud and rowdy the entire game. For the beginning of the game, Tucumcari parents were standing up and cheering, competing with the student section. But after the first quarter, it was all St. Michael’s as they cruised to a win and eventually to a championship victory. 

After the first round, most of the quarterfinals, semifinals, and all finals are played at The Pit. I was given a media pass to get on the floor and experience the games with a whole new perspective. On March 7, after school, I made my way down to Albuquerque to see four quarterfinal games for girls basketball. What was intriguing to me was seeing the student sections from some of these schools. Teams such as Hobbs and Farmington had some of the biggest student sections even though they are in the northwest and southeast corners of the state. 

The best and most entertaining game came at the end of the night when #2 seeded Farmington played #7 seeded Las Cruces. Both of their student sections were packed. The overwhelming support of fans driving three and a half hours to see a game shows how sports can bring a town together to support young men and women. During this game, it was very back and forth and the pressure was at an all-time high. The energy would shift back and forth until the last possession of the game when Las Cruces was down three.

Dead silence upon the court. Coming out of a timeout with less than 10 seconds left, Las Cruces needed some magic to pull off the upset over Farmington. Moving up the court as quickly as they could, Farmington’s student section, while small, was roaring. 

The pressure was on as the clock was ticking and at the very last moment, while falling down, a Las Cruces player chucked up a desperation heave and hit nothing but net! Overtime was going to be needed to determine this game.

Las Cruces took that momentum to win the game in overtime and, just like that, the madness that is March struck again. Upsets are the most thrilling thing for any sports fan, and I just saw it live. And it wasn’t the last one I would be seeing.

Two days later, after school, a couple of friends and I made our way down to Albuquerque again, but this time we saw 4A and 5A boys semifinals. The atmosphere was even more electric, partly because most of the teams were Albuquerque based. But the people who were the most rowdy were the parents, yelling obscenities.

Before every game there was, of course, the national anthem, followed by a message  that encouraged sportsmanship. The PA announcer would have one player from each team come out and say there is no room for bad sportsmanship and to respect everyone. It was a great message, but a little ironic. In the games that I saw, there were no instances involving poor sportsmanship among players. It was the parents who had problems with referees and with other parents.

Parental bias is a real thing. While recording for content, we caught multiple times when a call was opposed by parents when it was the correct call. It is unfortunate because we probably aren’t going to be able to use that footage. Parents were yelling and cursing like sailors. It was, “F*** this!” and “F*** you!” and “Refs, you f*****g suck!” It was pandemonium. You would think they were drunk as they chanted that the referees should lose their jobs. That was the highlight of the night for me, sitting down and experiencing it live. However, there were still great basketball games being played. 

All four of the games were phenomenal, except for one. And of course that one game was the game with the worst parents setting terrible examples for their young kids that were watching as well. But the other three games were great. An observation I made was that when the stakes grew, so did the student sections. 

The Valley Vikings were on a Cinderella run as the #12 seed, having knocked off #5 seeded Gallup and #4 seed Artesia in back-to-back games. However, they were facing the Albuquerque Academy Chargers, who had only lost three games the entire season and were the heavily favored #1 seed. Valley didn’t seem to be fazed at all. Keeping pace with the Chargers the entire game and even taking the lead a few times, it looked like we were going to see a #12 seed in the finals!

With the crowd on their feet in the waning minutes of the game, Valley couldn’t seem to find their shot. Academy proved why they were the #1 seed and put the pressure on. And it worked, as they squeaked out a win: Valley’s last shot at the buzzer clanged off of the rim. Midnight had struck for that Cinderella team. As they groaned and cried at falling short, Academy was quite the opposite. Celebrating and throwing towels, face- painted students going berserk, they had just secured the chance to win the State Championship.

For some it is more than just a game. It is more than trying to see who can put an orange ball through a metal circle more times than the other. Sometimes it’s all a kid has. Sometimes it’s all a family has. I don’t want to get into specifics due to privacy reasons, but I saw several players pray to God and shoot their hands up to heaven during their introductions, or point toward their family who came to see them play their potentially last game. A lot of athletes play to honor relatives, and to see that is really moving. 

The rest of the night unfolded without any interruptions. It was smooth sailing as all the tickets were punched for state as they awaited for Saturday to play for the title. Even after the games, parents stayed to support whoever was playing afterwards. Again, this shows how sports can bring a community together.

But the fun was just beginning.

March 11 was a long day for all at The Pit. From coaches and players, to media and parents, and to even food workers, the action was slated to begin at 8 am. The first game included Santa Fe’s own ATC taking on the heavily favored Pecos Panthers. We arrived at the half, seated nearly on the floor in the Pecos section, who were relatively quiet since ATC had an 11-point lead. The ATC student section was rocking, with good reason. This was the farthest that any ATC team has gone in the tournament.

The happiness would come to an end as ATC conceded an 11-point lead and ended up losing the game. One of the great sights to see during any championship game is the contrast in emotion when the clock hits zero and the buzzer sounds. One team rushes onto the court in celebration, grinning from ear to ear, jumping and gleaming with glee. The losing team is on the floor, sobbing at the sight of falling just short. This shows how much the sport means to every boy and girl who sets foot on the court.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. We were able to sit at multiple spots to get as many views and perspectives as possible. In the pictures below, I sat on the baseline right in front of the St. Mike’s student section, and they were rowdy. From the opening tip to the last buzzer, they were loud and creative, cheering on their team as St. Mike’s brought the banner back to Santa Fe. 

It wasn’t all intense games, however. There were a couple of games that were over before halftime. Most notably, 5A girls and 4A boys were lackluster. The biggest surprise for me was that the smallest schools had some of the greatest games. Single-A boys and girls were phenomenal games. In the morning, the combined school of Roy and Mosquero defeated the reservation of To’hajiilee in a tight battle that had the Pit absolutely rocking at 10 a.m. The other game was the opener to the main event.    

Single-A boys brought a great energy to it. The combined team of Fort Sumner/House were taking on the juggernauts of Magdelena. Magdalena was on a 41-game win streak coming into this game, going back to last year, and were defending champs. Fort Sumner came out firing though, as they were able to take an 11-point lead at the half. But no lead is safe when a team has won 41 straight games. 

Fort Sumner/House fought and clawed their way back to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. With four villages packed in the Pit, the last two minutes were electric. The noise was near deafening as Fort Sumner/House held on late to win and snap Magdalena’s 41-game win streak.

But there was one game that topped the rest. 

The main event of the evening, 5A boys, delivered everything any fan could have asked for. While it wasn’t a high scoring game, it delivered with energy from both sides: #1 ranked Volcano Vista against the #2 seeded Sandia Matadors. Once the previous game had ended, the stands were immediately packed. We were in for a treat as Volcano Vista and Sandia had their bands and drumlines playing at every possible moment. Sitting next to the Sandia drumline gave me a vibe that you would see at the collegiate level.

Lots of hype can sometimes lead to a flat game. This game, however, was quite the opposite. It was definitely a defensive game as there were plenty of great blocks and great defense all around. After every made shot was an eruption from the whole arena. It gave a great NBA/college game scenario. I have attended a UNM game at The Pit,  and this game brought back memories from it.

A great game where Sandia led the majority of the game, Volcano ultimately pulled it out. For the last six minutes of the game, Sandia went ice cold. They squandered a late lead, gave up the 4 four times in a row, and went down by 2. They weren’t even able to get a shot as their fourth and final steal in a span of 40 seconds sealed the victory for Volcano. Sandia’s section was absolutely stunned, and the roar from Volcano Vista’s side was deafening. 

I made my way down to the court and was able to snap a picture of Volcano with their banner as they were once again champions. It was an absolute surreal moment for me to be a part of, and I am happy I was gifted the opportunity to do so. It was a great end to a great week of high school basketball. Ten teams lifted their arms with their trophies as they will forever be etched in the history books as New Mexico state champions.