Top sports stories for 2012

Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, December 27, 2012

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(File photos)

TOP: Kirtland Central's Christian Benally (44) drives against Gallup's Skyler Haley (42) Jan. 5 at the 68th Annual Gallup Invitational in Gallup. In 2009, Benally was diagnosis with lymphoblastic leukemia and despite receiving treatments he earned a starting spot of the Bronco basketball team.

SECOND FROM TOP: The Page Lady Sand Devils raise their trophy for their fans after winning Arizona's Division III state title on Feb. 25 at the Arena in Glendale. Page defeated Winslow, 46-38.

THIRD FROM TOP: Chinle's Rolonda Jumbo leads the Division III 1,600-meter run May 11 at the state track meet in Mesa, Ariz. Jumbo took first place with a time of 4:57.83.

FOURTH FROM TOP: Montana Native Dustin Bird, Derrick Begay of Seba Delkai, Ariz., and Erich Rogers of Round Rock, Ariz., all competed at the 54th annual Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. (Courtesy photo – Bates photography)

T ypically, this is the time of the year when things start to slow down due to the holidays.

But this is also the time to look back and see what transpired throughout the year.

And just like the previous years, there were many headliners to consider and we, the Navajo Times sports staff, took the time to acknowledge some of the best stories of 2012.

Here are the stories that we felt that made an impact to our readers (in no particular order):

KC basketball star earns starting role after defeating leukemia

Losing his father, Lynn Benally, to an unexpected heart attack in Oct. 2008, being diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia in Jan. 2009, bouts with depression and the mental, physical and spiritual fortitude to overcome the cancer, didn't stop Christian Benally from earning the power forward position on the Kirtland Central Bronco's basketball team last season.

"I love playing basketball," Benally said in an interview with the Navajo Times last January. "It's my outlet for what I have gone through."

When first learning he had cancer, Benally said he was in disbelief and felt "dead in the inside."

"I was kind of mad that it happened to me," but then, "I thought there was no point in feeling sorry for myself because it's not going to go away."

After realizing his situation, Benally became more active and started working out with his sister, Jessica, who played basketball at Gillette College in Wyoming. From those workouts, he regained strength and developed a new focus that helped him earn a starting role.

When Benally was out on the court with the Broncos, there was no way opponents could stop him from what he did best: snatch the ball from a rebound, skip a pass to an open teammate for an assist, or square up for a jump shot.

Even on the days he received treatment, Christian still showed up at practice, a will power Kirtland Central head coach John Zecca called "uplifting" for the Broncos, who finished the season with an overall 17-11 record and state semifinal finish during the New Mexico 4A state championships last spring. 

"There are times that he comes back the very same day from treatment and he's at practice," Zecca said. "I can tell because he's lethargic. Us coaches are amazed by it. He's a great kid."

State wrestling champions

In wrestling, there is definitely a love-hate relationship that goes on, but for the five Navajo Times All-Stars who went the extra mile, there is no better feeling than winning a state championship.

For Peoria High senior Jaimen Bennalley, he was fixated on pushing himself, even though he had nothing in his tank to grind out a 7-2 win over Ironwood Ridge wrestler Lislate Otuafi by a 7-2 count in the 220-pound weight class at the Arizona Division II state wrestling meet on Feb. 11. Bennalley finished the year with a 37-1 record.

A week later, Piedra Vista's Nick Pacheco closed out his senior year with a perfect 39-0 record after he outlasted his opponent, Santa Fe's Alex George, in overtime for the 126-pound Class 4A state title.

Earlier that day, Pacheco watched his teammate Anthony Juckes successfully defend his title at 113 pounds. He defeated Los Lunas' Miguel Alvarado by a 6-4 decision.

Aztec senior Rio Escojeda avenged his only lost of the season with a 5-2 win over Santa Fe Capital's Isaiah Anaya in the 138-pound category in 4A. Escojeda finished the year with a 51-1 record and finished as back-to-back champions.

After coming up short for a state title for three years, Bloomfield senior Mikey Loy finally broke through with a scintillating 4-2 win over Anthony Burgueno of Belen for the 152-pound crown in 4A.

State basketball champions

Two basketball giants won the most important game of the season as the Page Lady Sand Devils and Kirtland Central Lady Broncos both were crowned state champions.

By winning the program's 19th state crown, the Lady Broncos have put together one of the most astonishing dynasties in New Mexico high school sports.

The Broncos entered the Class 4A state tournament as the No. 4 seed, but still KC coach Kevin Holman liked their chances.

"They expect to be here and you know they have been watching Kirtland Central play basketball at the Pit since they were little girls," Holman said. "It's unbelievable and they deserved it and no won can take No. 19 away from them."

Their latest crown was hard earned as they beat a good Roswell team, 42-41, when senior guard Arnetia Begay swatted a potential game-winning shot with time running out.

After five straight runner-up finishes, the Lady Sand Devils utilized their strengths – defense and 3-point shooting – to nail down its third state title by beating perennial power Winslow Lady Bulldogs, 46-38, for the Division III girls' state title.

The Sand Devils were paced by six seniors who made a commitment while in the sixth grade to one day hoist the elusive golden ball at state.

"I'm pretty stoked, man," Page coach Justin Smith said. "I wanted it all year because those girls, those seniors deserve it. They worked hard for a long time, they put up with a lot of stuff from and they deserve to win it."

Peshlakai Angels – Basketball tourney keeps sisters' message alive

One way the Peshlakai Family is raising awareness about the cost of drunk driving is through basketball – a sport their angels, Del Lynn, 19, and DeShauna, 17, loved so much that it was one of the last things they witnessed before departing this world.

Though it may have taken two years to organize, the tournament, called the "Peshlakai Angels Memorial 'Don't Drink and Drive' Basketball Tournament" held at Newcomb High and middle schools last March, is a powerful way for the Peshlakai's to raise public sensitivity to drunk driving in a place where tacit acceptance is the norm.

Proceeds from the tournament, which totaled about $5,500 from 30 men's and 18 women's teams from around the region, was distributed to the athletic programs at both Newcomb High and Newcomb Middle schools, where the girls played basketball before being killed on March 5, 2010 in Santa Fe in a crash caused by a repeat DWI offender.

In addition to the basketball tournament, the Peshlakai's also host an annual bike ride and fun/run/walker under the banner "Angels vs. Drunk Drivers."

"We plan these thing as a family because I don't want their deaths to be forgotten," said Darlene Peshlakai, the girls' mother. "In my household, everything happens for a reason. That may not be a good reason, but I don't want their deaths to be for nothing. I want it to be known that a drunk drive took their lives."

ASU wrestling champion brings positive message to Greasewood school

Even though he was born with one leg, Arizona State wrestler Anthony Robles has overcome many odds.

But when he beat reigning champion Matt McDonough of Iowa State in 2010 to become the National Collegiate Athletics Association champion in the 125-pound weight class, he proved to everyone that nothing is impossible.

"I just want to share that we all have our challenges, we sometimes have handicaps or rough upbringings from our families," he said. "Nobody is perfect and life is going to be hard but it's about telling yourself: 'I can be unstoppable.'"

He shared that story with roughly 200 students at Greasewood Community School on April 25.

"That is the word I love to use – unstoppable," Robles told the crowd. "It starts to have that mindset."

State track champions

The forces on Mother Nature and a nagging bacterial infection did not deter three runners from winning their respective races during the state track and field championships.

In Mesa, Ariz., at the Division III state track meet, Rolonda Jumbo of Chinle High nearly broke the all-time Arizona prep record in the one-mile race.

But the strep throat she contracted the week before the race sapped some of energy as she crossed the finish line in 4:57.83 to earn first place.

Currently a runner for Northern Arizona University, Jumbo also added the 3200-meter title and finished her prep career with 11 state titles.

A slow moving storm wreaked havoc during the New Mexico state track meet, which delayed many of the races that second weekend of May.

Nonetheless, Shiprock's Herbert Beyale III used the strong wind gusts to outkick his opponent Andres Gonzales of Santa Fe St. Michaels to win the 3200-meter race in Class 3A.

Beyale cut the tape in 10:19.53, which was nearly two-tenths of second better than Gonzales.

In Class 4A, Jackson Thomas of Del Norte capped his senior year by winning the 3200- and the 800-meter race.

Thomas, who is originally from Naschitti, N.M., credited those wins with the confidence he built during the prior summer when he won the Narbona Pass Classic.

"That is where it started," he said of the 6.1-mile race held in the Chooshgai Mountains. "That is here the winning began."

Besides those winners, there were eight other state champions crowned, two in Arizona and six in New Mexico including Tuba City's Matthew Murray (800-meter), Tuba City's Brianna Loughran (800-meter), Dulce's Graham Thomas (1600-meter), Dulce's Dakota Petago, Cuba's Kaitlyn Lovato (discus), Cuba's Danille Montoya (triple jump), Cuba's Felecia Chavez (javelin) and Rehoboth's Brooke Hamilton (300-meter hurdles).

Alvina Begay makes Olympic Trials appearance

In mid-June, Olympic hopeful Alvina Begay ran with 23 other elite runners during the U.S. Olympics Trials in the 10,000-meter race at the famed Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

The former Ganado High standout stayed just behind the lead pack for most of the race, but for the ones who followed her career they got a glimpse of her on television.

She finished the race in 17th place with a time of 32:58.63.

Afterward she was grateful that she participated and said, "not too many people get a chance to compete at an Olympic Trials. I was one of 24 women to experience that."

Page's Littleman contributes to Arizona NCAA baseball title

He wasn't the ace pitcher for the University of Arizona Wildcats, but for Vincent Littleman he contributed immensely to the team by simply accepting his role as the first pitcher out of the bullpen.

"It might not by my ideal role but sometimes you have to make that sacrifice," the Le Chee, Ariz., native said. "When you're in that spot, you have to do anything to win."

Littleman spent most of the baseball season on the bench, which included the team's College World Series run as they defeated two-time defending champion South Carolina 5-1 and 4-1 in the best of three series.

"He's a good guy, he works hard, he's a good teammate and he makes the other players better by forcing the competition," Arizona baseball coach Andy Lopez said of Littleman. "Once you leave high school you have to realize you won't be the superstar anymore and you will be playing with a lot of superstars – he was able to accept that."

36-year-old hits the college volleyball courts one more time

After two failed chances at completing a full volleyball season at the collegiate level, Rhonda Tree Magnan was given a third chance when her best friend and Haskell Indian Nations University head volleyball coach Nanabah Allison-Brewer offered her the middle hitter position during the 2011-2012 volleyball season.

It was also an opportunity for Tree-Magnan to accomplish one goal – achieve a college education.

"I watch out for some of my friends who went on to play at different colleges, and if they haven't finished I say, 'Hey, Haskell is a great school,'" said Brewer, the second-year head women's volleyball coach at the tribal university.

"Rhonda was the one who fit that profile and I was thankful she was willing to come out and take a big risk to play for me," Brewer said.

Magnan, originally from Farmington, did exceptionally well this past season, earning an all-tournament selection at the Avila University Eagle Invitational and first-team all conference in the Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference.

According to, Magnan lead the Indians with 244 kills on 640 attempts for a 0.27 hitting percentage this past fall. She helped the Indians finish the season with an overall 12-22 record and a 6-7 record during MCAC play.

"Words can't describe the awesome experience I had here," Tree-Magnan said in an interview on Dec. 27. "I thought I was going to be an old lady. I gave up my life up in Denver to come here…"

She's also has fared exceptionally well in the classroom with an average GPA of 3.7, since enrolling at Haskell. Her intended major is American Indian Studies.

Star studded field to compete in NB3 Challenge

With a dozen of the world' top golfer, the NB3 Challenge raised over $500,000 "to help its mission of empowering Native youth to sustain active, healthy and productive lives."

"That is the cornerstone of my foundation," professional golfer Notah Begay said, while adding that he is using his celebrity status and education to tackle issues such as childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes through his organization.

"It's imperative that we implement strategies to combat type two diabetes because we are compromising our health to a disease that is 100 percent preventable," he said.

This year the charity event was held at the Turning Stone Resort's Atunyote Golf Club in central New York that featured five players ranked in the top 100 in Professional Golfers Association tour.

The star-studded field included Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland.

The event also included four prominent players from the Ladies Professional Golf Association headed by world's No. 1 Yani Tseng of Taiwan.

Cristie Kerr, Lexi Thompson and Se Ri Pak joined the other golfers to make this a memorable event.

Former Crownpoint High standout walks on to UNM football team

His long-time goal was always to attend the University of New Mexico.

He remained steadfast on that goal even though there were a few offers to school elsewhere on a football scholarship.

But for Ryan Begay, he already had his mind made up.

After attending the school's rigorous Summer Bridge Program, the former Crownpoint High standout tried out for the football team.

But on that first day he was a bit overwhelmed since most of the other kids were much bigger and athletic than him.

Nonetheless, he stuck with it and impressed his coaches to make it on the walk-on team as an offensive lineman.

TC wins first state volleyball title

Finally, after making consecutive Final Four appearances from 2008 to 2011, the Tuba City Lady Warriors volleyball team achieved the ultimate feat - winning the 2012 Arizona Division III State Volleyball tournament at Tim's Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, Ariz., on Nov. 3.

The No. 2 Lady Warriors swept No. 5 Safford Lady Bulldogs in three sets (25-18, 26-24, 25-21) to capture the school's first state volleyball title.

Tuba City volleyball head coach Harlan Barlow, who took over the coaching reigns from Evelyn Kiyaani in 2010, called winning the elusive state title a "special feeling."

"We had to work hard for it," he said, adding that offseason training and practices twice a day paid major dividends. "We played in a state championship game and we came out as state champions."

Because of his team's efforts, Barlow was also named the 2012 Navajo Times Volleyball Coach of the Year. Barlow's coach of the year award this year is his second consecutive one. He secured the 2011 Navajo Times Volleyball Coach of the Year last season.

State cross-country championships

Six state cross-country team titles were won during the 2012 fall sports season.

The most notable one happened during the Arizona Division IV state meet when the Hopi Bruins captured its 23rd state boys title.

"We didn't quite know who our top seven runners were," Hopi coach Rich Baker said. "We finally realize that halfway through the season and to come and win our 23rd title based on what we had is a good feeling because I had four new runners this year."

The Hopi girls, on the other hand, made it 21 titles by winning its sixth straight crown.

"I am very proud of them," Hopi girls coach Laverne Lomakema said. "They put in the workouts."

In Division III, the Page Lady Sand Devils held off a tough Mingus Union team and captured its ninth state title. Three of those titles came in the last came in the last four years.

"It's a relief that we ended this season on top," said Page senior Jayde Secody, who was one of three seniors that competed her prep career on the varsity team.

In New Mexico, the Shiprock Lady Chieftains, the Navajo Prep Lady Eagles and the Laguna-Acoma boys won their respective state titles.

The Chieftains brought two eighth graders to the state meet and despite their youth they walked away with the 3A state title.

"These are rookies who have never been to the state meet, except one," Shiprock coach Alice Kinlichee said. "I didn't know what to expect…they just had to get out there with the mindset of winning. They had to get out and do it."

As for Navajo Prep, they made amends by winning the Class 2A title after they were upset by Rehoboth at the District 1-2A meet the week before.

The East Mountain Timberwolves also posed a challenge for the Eagles, but in the end Prep edged out the two state contenders by finishing with 63 points while East Mountain scored 73 and Rehoboth was a close third with 78 points.

"Wow! That is all I can say," Navajo Prep coach Stephanie McDonald said.

On the boys' side, the Laguna-Acoma squeezed their top six runners in the top 11 to easily walk away with the title.

With that they finished with a team total of 28 points, which was 43 points better than second place finisher Zuni.

Individually, Valene Madalena took an early lead in the New Mexico Class 1A race and won the title in 20:32 in Rio Rancho.

Dine college runner wins nationals meet

Most competitive runners work their whole lives trying to win a national title, but in the case for Diné College cross-country runner Dustin Abeita – he isn't like most runners.

He ran cross-country for the first time as a senior in high school. And it didn't take him long to win a national title as he took up the sport about 17 months ago.

Abeita, 19, won the United States Collegiate Athletic Association cross-country championship title on Nov. 9 in Lake Placid, N.Y. with a time of 27:36.61.

As a freshman, Abeita said it was by no surprise that he won the title, considering he entered the five-mile race ranked No. 1 in the conference. Still winning the meet was just as exciting.

"I already knew I was the fastest runner there," the 2012 Thoreau High graduate said. "It felt good. I just felt relieved I won, I just felt so happy…"

Natives 'proud' to have competed at WNFR

In December, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo seems to get the most attention around these parts, even though it's held in Las Vegas.

But what makes it so unique is it features the best of the best cowboys and cowgirls.

Only the top 15 competitors get a chance to contend for a world title, as no lead is considered safe at the NFR since it has the highest payouts in rodeo.

This year there was $6.125 million up for grabs and taking home a slice of that pie were three talented Native Americans team ropers.

Newcomer and Montana-cowboy Dustin Bird joined five-time NFR qualifier Derrick Begay and Round Rock, Ariz., Erich Rogers, who earned his second trip to Las Vegas.

Rogers earned a check in six of the ten rounds including a first-place finish in the third performance with partner Kory Koontz. As a team they finished third in the average and collected $91,874 each.

With that Rogers finishing the year in fifth place in the world standing by amassing $161,842.

As for Begay, he and his partner Cesar de la Cruz finished the average race in sixth place by roping seven steers, which included three second-place finishes.

During the ten-day run, Begay cleared $67,139 to push his year-end total to $155,233 for sixth place.

As for Bird, he pocketed $29,152 with his best finish coming in the fourth round with partner Paul Eaves. Bird finished the year in tenth place with $119,543.

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