Anika Amon knows she can develop good basketball players.
She has Olivia Cicci as an example.
If anything, Cicci is the ideal model for a Santa Fe Prep girls basketball player. The sport wasn’t her passion when she began playing as a freshman in 2009, but she was a talented athlete who would become a key member of Prep’s 2011 state track and field championship team. In four years, she developed into the starting point guard for the Blue Griffins under Amon’s direction as head coach and parlayed her success into a scholarship ride to Austin College in Sherman, Texas.
Amon knew that was the type of player Prep needed, as she was a soccer stalwart when she played at Prep in the mid-1990s but also was the starting point guard for five years.
“I love playing basketball,” Amon said. “It was my break from soccer, and it also trained the other muscle groups. It was what made me a more well-rounded athlete.”
However, those types of athletes have been missing in the program, and the issue reached critical mass by the start of the 2018-19 basketball season. The constant process of losing players who were committed to the program as eighth-graders and underclassmen to other sports or to the apathy of another struggling season is keeping the school from playing a full varsity schedule this season.
Add to that the inclusion of Prep as a member of a District 2-3A that included the likes of former 4A schools Las Vegas Robertson, St. Michael’s, Santa Fe Indian School and West Las Vegas. Also, what appeared to be another season of lopsided games — last season, Prep went 0-18 and lost by an average of 30 points per game while scoring 14.4 points per game — would be even worse with the district opponents the Blue Griffins had.
The program already had a 43-game losing streak coming into the season and was just two years removed from losing a game against Escalante 83-0.
So, Amon and Todd Kurth, Prep’s athletic director, agreed to a hybrid varsity/junior varsity schedule. The team has scheduled games with several varsity programs in the nondistrict portion of the season, but Prep will play a district junior varsity schedule once January hits.
Kurth said the decision was made so Amon could develop the younger players for the rigors of an eventual district varsity schedule, while also giving some of the upperclassmen who have been loyal to the program the opportunity to continue playing. He added that the girls basketball program’s plight is eerily similar to other girls programs at the school.
“Part of it is that Santa Fe prep is not necessarily the best culture for basketball here,” Kurth said. “We’ve had low numbers for five to seven years, but in the last one to three years, that has crept into some other sports. We’re seeing it in soccer, volleyball and cross-country. Those are the ones that are noticeable.”
As for the reasons for the trend, Kurth said it’s not a simple answer. He attributes part of the problem to the overall athlete specialization to one sport. At larger schools, missing out on one or two athletes in other sports can be easily overlooked. However, with Prep’s enrollment just a tick over 200 upper-school students, losing a handful of potential players over a series of years becomes much more problematic.
Exacerbating that problem, Kurth said, is the composition of recent incoming classes skewing heavily to the male side.
“Our current sophomore and eighth-grade classes have been very male-heavy,” Kurth said. “When you have a small school, not having a 50 percent composition means you start with a much smaller pool. If you have a 30-20 split in a class of 50, the loss of those five kids is a higher percentage than if you lost five kids at a 3A or 4A school.”
A larger problem that isn’t specific to just Prep is what Kurth sees as a general malaise of student participation and the desire to get involved with activities or athletics for the long term.
“I am seeing kids not necessarily wanting to participate, and whatever the kid wants, they get,” Kurth said. “You see it with the proliferation of video games. They don’t go out and play, so they are not inclined to join a soccer team or a basketball team. They would rather play video games.”
Amon added that learning to play basketball is not that simple. The dribbling and shooting aspects of the game are difficult to learn, and that is without teams playing pressure defense — a popular style in Northern New Mexico.
“Shooting and dribbling doesn’t happen overnight,” Amon said. “Some of the other sports do not require the special skill sets that basketball does. When you’re on the soccer field and you’re still learning to dribble and all of that, you can make a one touch pass and get out of trouble. It’s not easy when you’re trying to be a good shooter and dribbler when someone is in your face all the time.”
Playing the sub-varsity level, Amon feels, will be good for the overall development of the program.
Having been the head coach at Prep twice before, she knows that the bad years in the past saw the Blue Griffins losing by 20 or 30 points, not the 50- and 60-point margins that were the norm against better teams recently. While some coaches might not see the difference in point margin, Amon said it has a significant impact on players’ psyches, especially those learning the game.
“This should be fun,” Amon said. “It should be fun to play basketball, to ride the bus to games and eat dinner together. All of that makes playing basketball fun. When the fun is removed from all these large-margined losses, it makes it hard to play.”
Amon is encouraged by what she has seen so far. Prep went to the Santa Fe Indian School junior varsity tournament from Nov. 29-Dec. 1, and finally broke its losing streak in the consolation semifinal against Academy for Technology and the Classics. On Tuesday, the Blue Griffins lost, 43-20, to Albuquerque Menaul, but it was only a 5-3 margin after a quarter before the Lady Panthers scored 23 points in the second quarter.
Even more important, though, is the increase in bodies with the high school and middle school programs. Kurth said there are 25 players overall, and the middle school team achieved a milestone never seen in the program’s history — it won a playoff game. Granted, it came in the consolation bracket earlier this week, but it was progress during a time when it seemed like none was present.
“We were struggling to put four points on the scoreboard in the past, and trying to make things respectable,” Kurth said.
Kurth and Amon hope respectability is coming soon at the varsity level, and Amon might find another Cicci to help build it.