Ben Gomez spent much of the past three decades developing and honing the “Capital Way” — the process by which the upperclassmen nurture and guide the younger players’ growth in learning Gomez’s system.

Aside from a four-year gap that came when Gomez was fired in 2009, he has charted the school’s boys basketball program since 2003 using that philosophy. In that time, the Jaguars have won a Class 4A title and played for a state title five times, including a berth in the 5A championship game in 2020.

But since that championship game played in the early onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the program has struggled to maintain its perch as one of the best in the state, regardless of classification.

The pandemic itself stripped the program of its continuity, starting with the loss of the offseason in 2020 that flowed into a 2021 season in which Gomez played primarily seniors to give them a chance to compete one more time.

The 2021-22 edition was undersized, inexperienced and unprepared for 5A competition, and it showed in a 12-16 record that was Capital’s first losing season since 2014-15. The culmination was a second straight year missing out on the Class 5A State Tournament after reaching the postseason 19 consecutive Marches.

Gomez said the recent struggles are a result of the pandemic’s impact on that trickle-down style of teaching and learning that was absent for the previous two summers.

“They can talk and teach what we’ve taught them,” Gomez said. “It’s funny how teenagers listen to teenagers better than they listen to coaches. They seem to grasp a concept better when one of their colleagues explains it to them.

“Not being able to do that for the past two years really set us back.”

Despite the program’s recent struggles, Gomez and the Jaguars have hope they are turning a corner and could return to relevance in 5A. For the first time since 2019, the program is conducting a normal summer workout schedule, replete with open gyms and weekend scrimmages designed to get the Jaguars ready for the winter.

Capital went 5-7 through the first two weeks of the summer campaign, then won four out of six games over the weekend at its basketball camp conducted with Santa Fe High. The Jaguars will end their summer by going to the Gold Cup tournament in Denver, where they will continue to make the case they are much-improved from last year’s team.

“I think we’re doing a lot better than what we were because everyone started to work more,” Capital rising senior Izaya Sanchez-

Valencia said. “We missed that extra offseason we used to get.”

Yes, Capital is still short (only three players on the roster are taller than 6 feet), but the players say they are stronger from a spring of hitting the weights. They also are smarter, as they learned the lessons of trying to survive as a perimeter-oriented team.

“We all know we’re not going to be the biggest guys out there,” junior-to-be Santiago Bencomo said. “We never are. So, we know what we need to do and trust the guys who need to take shots.”

In wins over Valencia, Los Alamos and Albuquerque High, the Jaguars moved the ball around more crisply, attacked the basket with the intent of scoring instead of trying to draw defenders to kick out for 3-pointers and playing more physically.

Rising senior Francisco said the team hit the weight room hard after taking a week break at the end of the season, and the results have shown in be able to handle contact better — while also dishing it out, as well. They were the more physical team in a 56-22 win over Albuquerque High Friday afternoon, even though the Bulldogs were taller.

“We just gotta act like we’re as strong as them and play hard,” Diaz said. “Just because we’re small, we’re not going to let big guys come in and take over our house. We’re going to fight back and do everything we can to get the ball back.”

Gomez said he has seen a marked difference, adding the Jaguars are well ahead of where they were a year ago. But last June was a “lost summer” for the program, as some players were competing in spring sports as the 2021 season ended six weeks later than normal because the coronavirus pandemic halted athletic competition until March. However, other players simply didn’t show up for open gym or the couple of tournaments Capital played in because of the pandemic.

Gomez said he was impressed that the team won 12 games last year, considering how little time the team had to develop and grow together in the offseason.

This summer, about 40-45 players — even a few eighth graders — are showing up to daily two-hour open gym sessions designed to improve the players’ skill set and understand Gomez’s system. It’s about twice the number coaches saw in June of 2021.

“Having a summer program is not the cure-all,” Gomez said, “but if you don’t have a summer program, you’re setting yourself up for failure. And it’s important for these guys to go out there and battle and see who is going to step up in situations. Who is going to be situationally better in those instances that creates the experiences we need in the summertime that carries over to the season?”

That was missing in 2021, as Gomez said he used the season to give the seniors a chance to play one more time for the five-week season, but that also didn’t allow players from the other classes a chance to learn from the graduating class.

It wasn’t until the start of the 2021-22 season that he and the coaches could reestablish that hand-me-down system of learning.

“We had inexperience, and that’s what set us back,” Gomez said. “The majority of the players we had last year did not have varsity experience. I would tell people I have a JV team playing a varsity schedule and they didn’t believe me. But we did.”

Gomez added he never coached a team as small as last year’s group, which had just two players 6-0 or taller. That number hasn’t grown appreciably this summer, but Gomez feels more confident the 2022-23 team is in a better position to compete against opponents who will generally be taller than the Jaguars.

“I wish I had guys walking around who are 6-5, 6-6, 6-7,” Gomez said. “But we are not fortunate enough to have that. It’s one of those things that we have to believe that we can be successful in doing the things we need to do to achieve that.”

The Jaguars said they want to restore the program’s luster, and feel they will compete for a spot in the 16-team bracket next March. Diaz said the current crop of rising seniors remember how special the 2019-20 season was, and want to create their own stamp on the program.

Being the class to help return stability to a program that was used to that would be a huge step in the right direction.

“That’s why we’re working so hard,” Diaz said. “It’s more of a want and determination than it is anything else. Everyone understands what the big prize is and everyone is chasing it this year.”

It might not be a state championship, but to get back to the Big Dance would be almost as sweet an accomplishment for the Jaguars.

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