A rookie covers the Tip-Off Classic

By Diane J. Schmidt
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, Nov. 23, 2011

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Santa Fe Indian School's Bridget Lee (34) shoots over Navajo Pine's Destiny Laughlin Friday at The Pit in Albuquerque. The Braves defeated the Warriors, 63-53, in a battle of Class 3A and 2A state champions.

The New Mexico Activities Association's Arthur "Dinty" Romero Tip-Off Classic on Nov. 18 was an education for this writer.

I had never covered sports and had to learn each step of the way.

The first game of interest to the Navajo Times was Class 2A girls state champion Navajo Pine Lady Warriors against the Class 3A state champ Santa Fe Indian School Lady Braves.

At the The Pit, photographer Donovan Quintero, texted me he would be "courtside" in a few minutes - what the heck is courtside?

Last year, the Lady Warriors did the unthinkable and unseated top-ranked Texico, bringing home the school's first-ever state championship trophy.

Santa Fe Indian School had successfully defended their Class 3A state crown last year, defeating Shiprock.

Getting to where the Lady Warriors were warming up involved climbing past a bunch of people. Finally I found myself high in The Pit's stands, dizzily trying to catch my breath and noticed I was standing next to, whoa, what could only be Navajo Pine fans.

Sure enough, they had Navajo Pine players in the game. I talked briefly to the parents, one of whom had a video recorder on a monopod ready to record every moment. They also filled me in on some key facts.

Vernee Hardy, from Navajo, N.M., told me, "That's Kaitlin Chee down there with the hair bun. Number 21. Her cousin is Demetria Clichee, number 23, in the turquoise shoes with the ponytail. They both play guard.

"They started playing their freshman year during the summer tournaments and they've been playing together ever since," she said. "They're going to do good. They're both juniors now, they're both 16."

They have 11 players but no, only five play at a time. I think Hardy looked at me a little funny when I asked about that.

Hair bun, turquoise shoes, got it. OK. Guards, check.

Key players

As it turned out, Kaitlin Chee and Demetria Clichee would dominate the Lady Warriors team. They were two of the five players left from last year's state championships team, according to Warrior's head coach Aretha Mariano, who I caught up to later.

In her second year as head coach, coming up from assistant coach in 2009, Mariano said she felt she had a solid team going into the game although she'd lost players from last season, adding that Chee and Clichee definitely were keeping things on track.

In the opening minutes, Chee and Clichee worked like twin minds, foreseeing each others' every move, every thought, seamlessly putting the ball in each other's hands at the key moments and keeping the score well ahead of the Lady Braves.

Right out of the gate, Navajo Pine took the lead and in the first four minutes, 9-2.

"Man, look at that three-point shot Turquoise Shoes just sunk," I thought, having dubbed Clichee "Turquoise Shoes." "And I know who that is. Yay!"

By this time I'd found photographer Donovan Quintero, who always seems to be everywhere all the time. Quintero politely noted, "As the reporter, you're really not supposed to cheer for one side."

"Oh. Right." I slunk back up onto the bench.

And the Lady Warriors' lead faded as the Lady Braves suddenly opened up and put away five three-pointers in quick succession - two by senior Makayela Holiday. The Lady Braves took the lead 23-11 to end the first quarter.

In the second quarter, Lady Brave Danielle Nelson, standing at 5-foot-10, sunk free throws like butter.

With 4:33 left in the half, Navajo Pine inched closer to the Braves, but still trailed by five points, 25-20. With 1:09 left in the quarter, Navajo Pine came back, 32-30.

In the third quarter, the Lady Braves pressed. Just when the tension was getting unbearable and I was running out of clichŽs, the third quarter mercifully ended.

The Lady Braves stood firmly in the lead this time, with the score 46-38 at the end of the third quarter.

To open the final quarter, Navajo Pine's Clichee put away a three-pointer with 7:20 left on the clock, bringing Navajo Pine to 46-41.

Excitement picked up again. The Lady Braves answered back by scoring 8 points in quick succession.

At 3:40 left to play, the Lady Braves pulled away, 58-47.

Color in the story

Then, all of a sudden, Lady Brave Bridget Lee, who had been limping since the first quarter but still carrying the team with points, went down hard and laid in pain in a fetal position.

Something was hurting. Medics ran out on to the court. She waved them off and now she's up again, asking to stay in the game. She's hopping a bit for some minutes, and then takes the ball and drives it in.

Quintero, the photographer, leaned over and said, "They like it when you put a lot of color into the story, like, you could say, '34 powered her way in, even while limping from an earlier injury.'"

Lee, a junior, is their biggest, tallest player, and down there on the court you really could feel her, like a strong breeze, powering in.

I tell Quintero that Navajo Pine's Chee always seems to have the ball but doesn't get many points.

He tells me, "21 directs the whole offensive plays, she's the one that gets an idea of what the defense is. On the SFIS side, see how 5 (Victoria Lovato) is signaling, calling the shots."

At 2:08 left in the game, Chee takes charge and "scores off a steal with a long pass thrown down the court from 23 (Clichee)," as Quintero describes it.

With 54 seconds left in the game, the Warriors trailed, 60-51, and, oy vey (that's Yiddish for yaadila), now Lady Brave Danielle Nelson is down and the clock has stopped.

Nelson, a junior, was clutching her knee and gasping for air. This one wasn't coming back this game - Nelson had over-extended her knee, and was half-carried off the court.

Both teams knock in a couple more points to end the game. The defending 3A state champions from Santa Fe Indian School trumped the defending 2A state champions from Navajo Pine, 63-53.

Lady Brave Bridget Lee led the team with 18 points, followed by Danielle Nelson with 13 points. For Navajo Pine, the top scorers included Demetria Clichee at 20 points and Kaitlin Chee at 13 points.

Post-game talk

I trailed the Lady Braves into the locker room where coach Cindy Roybal gathered the team for a talk.

"A little ragged," she pronounced. Then she opened up with praise, jokes, and ribbing. "Ashley (Terry), get that stupid volleyball out of your head. The little ones, you did a good job. You know I expect a lot more."

Turning to one player, she focused her laser beam, "You, smile, relax, kid. We need your talent, but you need to relax."

Going over repeatedly to Nelson, who was clutching her leg in apparent agony, she assured her, "We're getting you some ice and some ibuprofen.

"Make sure she has help getting on the bus. You're staying off that leg for a while. I know it hurts like hell but it's just an overextension," she said, patting her on the shoulder. A pair of crutches and an ice pack appeared.

"We're out of shape," Roybal told the team. "We would have pressed those guys, working on that match-up. Contain 21 (Chee) and 23 (Clichee) a little bit more."

Then she relented again, allowing as, "The sloppiest win is better than the nicest loss."

She pointed to the fatigue that had started to show.

"We start getting tired. You had a lead. You have to keep building. We were up 11 points, then we let it slide down to 2. I thought, here we go, we're going to kick some butt," trailing off the thought, she let it sink in.

"Danny, you did a heck of a job. Confidence, you have to know where you're going to take that shot."

Turning again to the right, "Nervous? You're in The Pit - shake it off. You did a he-- of a job. You guys, pick each other up."

Spraying her tough love in wide beams now to the left side of the locker room, Roybal added, "She's just a baby, pick her up."

Wrapping up her talk, Roybal's parting shots: "Don't get scared, you take the lead. You're good, g-d d-mmit. You miss a layup? Smile. I didn't see you smile. You get pissed, all it does is make you worse."

Good advice

I'm thinking, this is really good advice, this is what coaching is all about. I wish my parents had talked to me that way, had known how to deliver the messages and get you going forward at the same time.

I'm impressed, and maybe, just maybe, I'm thinking, sports writing ain't all that bad a gig after all.

In a postgame conversation, Navajo Pine coach Mariano said, "I think my girls did pretty good. We only had four returning, we lost 8 girls. They have so much experience together. It's going to be different this year."

Among other talent, the team welcomed a freshman, a sophomore and a senior who had never played before, according to Mariano, adding that her team did better than she'd expected.

"I'm looking for them to really shape up their game, make sure they all show up for practice everyday," she said. "I may make the team smaller right now."

She had words of praise for the Braves.

"Santa Fe Indian School is a tough team," she said. "It seemed they had practiced. They have a very strong inside team, every rebound they're there."

But she also was very proud of her team's plays.

"Our guards took the ball from them," Mariano said. "On top, my guards did really well."

And Mariano sees Navajo Pine's stamina carrying them forward.

"We've been running, up to an hour a day, four of the girls are on cross country, too."

In the following game, Gallup, the Class 4A state champ, defeated Mayfield from Las Cruces, the Class 5A state champ, by the score of 55-44.

The Lady Bengals, who won their fifth state crown last year with a 60-46 romp over top-ranked Kirtland Central, had already taken the lead over the Lady Trojans in the first quarter, 10-7.

I had to leave at that point but I later found out that the Lady Bengals defeated the Lady Trojans.

On defense Gallup used a full-court press that resulted in 33 Mayfield turnovers.

Shanel Begay led the Bengals with 12 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Shelby Nelson added 11 points and Brittany Gutierrez had 7 points and 6 rebounds.

Gallup won with a final score of 55-44.

Quintero texted later, "They made it look easy."

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