The championship game one high school basketball coach can’t forget
“I see people today and they say to me, ‘Louie, you should still be coaching. Remember 1983? You ought to be coaching again.’ ”
Sanchez, a solidly built, gray-haired man of 64, is retired. He played high school basketball in Pecos in the ’60s, and in the late ’70s, he served as assistant coach of the boys’ team for three years. In 1981, he became the head coach.
It was a young team, and the Panthers lost their first nine games.
“I thought, Where are we going wrong? Then I told myself, Just keep working, Louie.”
The Panthers ended with a losing season but the next year finished 14-8. Good, but not enough.
“We didn’t talk about being undefeated. Nobody wanted to mention it.”
Former Pecos High School basketball coach Louis Sanchez
In 1983, Sanchez had a feeling. “We didn’t have size. We didn’t have stars. But these eight kids, they seemed to play like a team.”
He taught them to press on defense. To press hard.
They began beating people.
The Panthers went to 3-0, then 6-0. By early January 1983, they were 9-0. “The wins made believers in the village,” Sanchez says. “People got on the bandwagon.”
When Sanchez looked up into the bleachers during the games, he would glimpse a sea of green—Pecos green. When the team traveled, there was often as much green in the stands as the home team’s colors.
They won close games. They beat West Las Vegas at the buzzer. They beat the Santa Fe Indian School in overtime. They came back from five points down late to slip past Santa Rosa. “We didn’t talk about being undefeated,” Sanchez says. “Nobody wanted to mention it.”
The winning didn’t stop. All of a sudden, it was late February and the Pecos boys were 22-0.
When Sanchez forgets a detail of that season, he pulls out a scrapbook of 1983 that a friend put together for him. “The village was ecstatic,” says Sanchez, thumbing through the aging clippings. Former students telephoned the coach. People cornered him at Casa de Herrera, the town’s popular eating spot, and told him how proud they were. “You could feel the excitement,” remembers Benny Gallegos, the squad’s point guard.
You can’t see much of Pecos from I-25, about 20 minutes southeast of Santa Fe. Some say that being tucked out of sight from motorists gives residents a we’ll-show-you attitude.
Close to 800 live in the town proper, a village divided by the Pecos River. People work for the school system or the state, or they ranch. Everyone knows everyone else. The high school had about 280 students in 1983—about the same as today. Like a lot of small towns in New Mexico, life then and now in Pecos revolves around basketball.
Those 1983 Panthers won their district and regional easily. They were up to 25-0. Sanchez was so anxious to keep the streak going that he drove in one long day to the bottom of the state and back to scout a school he thought Pecos would meet in the first round of the state tournament.
On March 10, a Thursday, the Panthers stopped Moriarty by 18 points in the now gone Civic Auditorium. “We played so well that any tournament jitters seemed done with,” Sanchez remembers.
Pecos would face the Escalante Lobos in the AA finals on Saturday. The two teams had met twice that year, and twice Pecos had won comfortably. Optimism ran high in Panther land.
The championship final was set for Saturday at 10:30 a.m. in The Pit. Sanchez had been in The Pit before, but several of his players had not. This was clearly a Hoosiers moment. More than 6,300 fans on hand saw to it.
“When we came down the ramp, there was this roar from the crowd,” says Sanchez. “It was like a dream.”
Back home, the village lay nearly empty. “I don’t think there was a store open,” says Sanchez.
Escalante High School, located in Tierra Amarilla, had played in the championship final the year before and lost. That experience seemed to help them to a 10-2 lead. Pecos went cold, shooting only 19 percent in the first half. Nervous? “Big time,” Sanchez recalls.
“We played scared,” remembers point guard Gallegos. “We knew we had a lot to lose.” Pecos rallied in the fourth quarter. Scoring 14 unanswered points, the Panthers went up 58-53.
“We felt that if we were ahead near the end, we could win,” Sanchez says. “We had done that before all season.” The Panthers applied their press, but Escalante came back to lead 63-62 with less than a minute left. A controversial call by officials, followed by confusion over how much time remained, let Escalante grab the victory, 64-62.
“Devastating,” says Gallegos. “Really devastating.”
“The community took it hard,” Sanchez says. “We all cried. I kept asking, Why? Why?”
The pain ran so deep and so crazy, it followed Sanchez into the next year. “My expectations for that year were to go undefeated,” he says. He wanted to go back to Albuquerque and get that blue championship trophy. “I made too many demands.” The Panthers didn’t respond. In mid-January 1984, with his team 9-5, Sanchez resigned.
“Everybody was shocked,” he says.
“Even me,” his wife, Gloria, says.
“I wasn’t sleeping well,” says Sanchez. “You set your goals too high and don’t reach them, it does something to you. I regret quitting. I let the boys down. I felt like I deserted them. I was thinking more of myself.”
He stayed away from the Pecos gym for the rest of that season and the one after. In 1986, he was ready to go back. “My sons were playing basketball now, and I wanted to be with them.” He applied to be coach and was hired. He took the Panthers to the AA finals in The Pit a second time, in 1987, but lost again. This was not nearly as painful, for Pecos dropped 12 games that season.
That was OK. He had met his demons and survived. Winning state was not what coaching was about, he now knew. Coaching was about helping young people. He felt he had done that.
There was one boy, however, who Sanchez could not help.
Some called him “little Louie,” even though the coach’s son and namesake, Louis G. Sanchez Jr., stood 6 feet 1 inch. A fine shooter, he was a natural athlete, a gifted artist, appealingly handsome. He played all sports but loved basketball. “Had a passion for it,” says his dad.
The spring of his junior year, Louis Jr. was at baseball practice, a few yards west of the gymnasium. He was an outfielder until he hurt his arm in a game against Santa Rosa. The coach switched him to first base. That is where he stood that overcast afternoon of May 10, 1989.
The lightning came from nowhere. Louis Jr.’s older brother, Jason, felt the shock in his feet while playing third base. Some other boys felt it their hands.
Louis Jr. took the bolt full on.
He crumpled to the ground. A teammate tried mouth-to-mouth. No use.
Grief tore through Pecos. More than 1,000 people filled the gym for the funeral. Pallbearers who had played basketball with and against Louis Jr. walked beside his coffin to St. Anthony’s Cemetery, about a mile away.
No one cast blame for keeping the team on the field. This was dry lightning; there had been no warning. Rain didn’t show up until five minutes after. Even so, Sanchez again was left to ask a familiar question. Why?
An almost-perfect season lost. Then a wonderful son gone. Why? Why?
“No way you can compare the two,” the old coach says. “I would take 10, 20 losses to Escalante to get my boy back.” Indeed, he thinks of that 1983 game maybe two or three times a year. He thinks of his son every day of the year.
Should he forget—and that will not happen—the Pecos gym is named in memory of little Louie.