ALBUQUERQUE — Santa Fe High School and Santa Fe Indian School are separated by size but linked by a common bond.
It’s called basketball.
With each having loud, passionate fan bases and a long, unquenched thirst for glory, the Demons and Braves will play for boys state titles in their respective divisions Saturday in The Pit at the University of New Mexico.
In a lot of ways, Saturday is Santa Fe Day at The Pit.
Big (1,536 students) and not-so-big (707), Santa Fe High and the Indian School, respectively, have stolen the show in their attention-getting runs to the state finals.
The Demons, who play Albuquerque’s Atrisco Heritage Academy at 8 p.m. in the Class 5A final, are in a boys state championship game for the first time since 1978. The Braves, who upset top-seeded and crosstown rival St. Michael’s in a Class 3A semifinal Friday, meet Hot Springs at noon for a shot at a cherished blue trophy, a prize they have never won in 30 years.
Very different schools have similar emotions as their moments approach.
It’s a time filled with pride.
“We say it all the time,” said Santa Fe High principal Carl Marano, himself a onetime Demons guard. “Our kids from Santa Fe — whether they go to Santa Fe High, St. Michael’s or Capital, whether they go to Desert Academy or Santa Fe Waldorf or to any of our schools in the city — we are proud of them. For our community, it really is a testament to the work ethic in this town.”
The intense Santa Fe Indian-St. Michael’s game drew about 10,000 spectators Friday. Braves athletic director Eric Brock’s voice wavered while talking about what a shot at the title means, particularly at his school, which has never won a boys state title.
“There is an immense pride for these kids,” Brock said. “It’s emotional. It is something you can only imagine as you start a job or finish a job — where you want to see your athletes at, your coaches at. To have your fan base be so proud to have those kids in those positions to represent the school is really amazing.”
Santa Fe High head coach Zack Cole said after Thursday’s 55-52 semifinal win over Volcano Vista that the long gap between championship appearances made the Demons’ long-suffering fan base hungry for another opportunity. It showed: About 10,000 people showed up for the semifinal and gave the game a decidedly pro-Santa Fe feel.
“We’re the only [public] school that holds the city’s name,” Cole said. “So they should have a lot of pride in that, and I hope they show up on Saturday.”
Santa Fe High senior Christian Kavanaugh said he felt confident The Pit will be filled with people he knows for the matchup against Atrisco Heritage, Albuquerque’s newest high school and the 2018 Class 6A state champion.
“The town’s gonna shut down,” said Kavanaugh, a starting point guard for the Demons.
Santa Fe Indian School boasts students who come from 19 pueblos as well as from the Navajo Nation. Jason Abeyta, the boys head coach, acknowledged its broad borders sometimes make it challenging to keep up with other programs.
Unlike most other schools whose players live within city limits, Abyeta and his coaching counterpart in the girls program, Patricia Chavez, have to work harder at fundraising and coordinating players to go to summer camps. Add to that the religious and cultural responsibilities the players have, along with schoolwork, and some aren’t always available for games and practices.
“Sometimes, we don’t even have our full team on certain road trips, for whatever reason it is,” said Abeyta, a 1996 SFIS graduate. “But that’s what we believe in, and that builds trust. What can we do?”
Abeyta and the Indian School have personal ties with Cole. Cole is a former Indian School head coach and gave Abeyta his first coaching job as an assistant before Cole took a job in California (and later returned to Santa Fe). Abeyta stayed on at his alma mater and took over the program on an interim basis in February of 2016. He became the permanent head coach that spring and helped build the Braves into a program that mimics a lot of the ideals and philosophy that Cole espouses at Santa Fe High.
“Defense, defense — and learning how to run a program,” Abeyta said of what he learned under Cole. “It’s from the bottom up. If you look at his program, they start when they’re real young. And it starts with a summer program. … I’ve learned so much from the guy, these guys learned from him and he loves the kids. That’s what helps. We love each other’s kids.”
Two schools. Two teams. One town.