Before the Portales Rams could make a trip to Albuquerque, they had another trip to worry about: The drive for five.
Whatever struggles the Rams had throughout the year — and there were struggles, with a slow start and a rough schedule throughout — were offset by the pride of knowing the road to the District 4-3A title goes through Portales.
“I think people around the state know once it’s district time Portales is going to be at (its) best,” Rams coach Mark Gallegos said. The Rams captured their fifth consecutive district title with Saturday’s 68-50 win over Lovington. Now, Portales (18-9) seeks to beat 14th-seeded Crownpoint (15-11), then get a second-round win in Albuquerque because Gallegos says “you get past that first game, anything can happen.”
Ask West Las Vegas. The fourth-seeded Dons escaped last year’s quarterfinals against Portales, then carried that momentum into the title game — where they were edged by seventh-seeded Pojoaque.
“I’ve seen that film a couple times,” senior guard Will Archibeque said of the 67-59 defeat. “We were down 12 or 13, then we get all the momentum, take the crowd out of it and get the lead and we can’t (seal the deal).
“They make it to the state championship; we’ve been sitting at home. That motivated me.”
It was another state championship that contributed to a slow start for this year’s Ram team. A prolonged playoff run, punctuated by Portales’ first state football title since 1988, meant the team that returned wasn’t in basketball shape early, and it showed with a 2-5 record and a seventh-place finish in the Stu Clark Tournament in Las Vegas, N.M.
“It’s not a setback,” Gallegos said, “but it’s hard to keep your confidence when you’re playing teams like Clovis and you don’t play well at the Stu Clark.”
The turning point came against a Class 4A squad, but which one depends on who you ask.
For Gallegos, it was a 53-52 home win Jan. 30 against Roswell High, ranked second in 4A. Coming in the middle of District 4-3A play, it told the state Portales wasn’t just benefitting from a weak district.
“That kind of showed we were capable of beating a top-quality team in 4A,” Gallegos said. “That propelled us, that validated what we were doing.”
Archibeque set his sights a little further south, as the Rams put a scare into then 11-0 Artesia on Jan. 8. Artesia moved to 12-0, but with only a 51-48 win.
Portales later lost to Hope Christian, 3A’s top seed, 72-50. But Archibeque still feels the Rams match up well against the Huskies, and trusts Portales will be better defensively.
Since the game against Hope, Portales has won 10 of 11 with only four teams breaking 50 points and allowing 40 or less seven times.
“We couldn’t get any stops early,” Archibeque said. “That’s what’s winning us games in district. We’ve got that mindset that our defense is going to jump-start our offense.”