Eagles eye another shot at national championship

Jeremy Anaya, right, a 2017 Capital graduate, along with 2017 Desert Academy graduate Tomas Rodriguez, have been vital point guards for Northern New Mexico College.Courtesy John Denne

The Northern New Mexico men’s basketball program has continued a trend, and Ryan Cordova hopes it gets noticed — especially by those in high places.

For the seventh time in the last nine years, the Eagles will hit the road for the NAIA Association of Independent Institutions Men’s Basketball Championships after they earned the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament that begins Feb. 22 in Lincoln, Ill. They take on No. 3 Voorhees College of Denmark, S.C., in a first-round game.

Unlike in past years, when the conference received only two bids into the NAIA National Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 10 remaining teams are playing for three spots to get into the national tournament.

Cordova said Voorhees was the preseason favorite to win the conference, while Northern New Mexico was rated third. The Bulldogs come in on a nine-game winning streak, but the Eagles are hitting their stride, having won four of their last five games.

“We got our work cut out for us,” Cordova said. “It’s a good thing, though, because we like doing work.”

And Northern New Mexico has put in the work to overcome some midseason obstacles. The Eagles lost leading scorer Bryce Simmons, key rotation player Jose Rodriguez and a couple others to poor academic performance, which affected their depth. Down to 11 out of a possible 15 players, Cordova became more selective in playing his normal up-tempo style while also trying to become more effective in taking care of the ball.

“We just have to be a bit more methodical,” Cordova said. “Maybe press and pick up the pace when teams are getting tired, like in the last five minutes of the first half, or right about the 12-minute mark in the second. Those are good times to used our athleticism and pace and make little runs.”

The absence of Simmons and Rodriguez, a 2017 Albuquerque Rio Grande graduate, opened up playing time for other guards — especially Capital graduate Jeremy Anaya and 2017 Desert Academy grad Tomas Rodriguez. Cordova has recently leaned on the pair to handle more of the point guard responsibilities, and has done so successfully, as Northern New Mexico has just 14 turnovers in the past two games.

“Jeremy has given me some good minutes, and he’s started two of the last three games,” Cordova said. “And Tomas, he was a redshirt freshman as well, so it’s nice to see some redshirt freshmen stepping up.”

That Anaya and Rodriguez are homegrown players making important contributions is just as important for the program off the court. In his other job as the school’s athletic director, Cordova has spent time in Santa Fe lobbying for the athletic department during the legislative session in the hopes of getting a funding boost.

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Last year, the department received $352,100 from the state that was the bulk of Northern New Mexico’s $616,000 budget, but also got $100,000 from student fees at the school. Cordova said fundraising brings in about another $60,000, and the games the Eagles play against Division I schools like the University of New Mexico and D-II schools Fort Lewis College, New Mexico Highlands and Western New Mexico generate about $20,000 to $30,000.

However, when Northern New Mexico had to cut budgets across the board as it struggled with its finances over the past few years, Cordova had to slash about $150,000 from athletics.

“That’s a quarter of our budget,” Cordova said. “We have to be careful about what we spend on and how we spend it to make sure we stay within our budget. That’s just being responsible.”

Cordova hopes that fiscal restraint and the fact that 80 percent of the school’s student-athletes are from New Mexico (nine of the 15 players on the men’s basketball roster are in-state products) will help his cause. He points to the amount of work players like Anaya and Rodriguez, both of whom work full-time jobs during the season while also playing and studying, put in just for the chance to represent the school and the state.

“Look at Tomas; he manages a Chick-fil-A [in Santa Fe], runs cross-country and is a basketball player as well as a full-time student,” Cordova said. “To help them financially, being New Mexico kids, would make a world of difference. And they do well in the classroom, with all that going on.”

Cordova hopes all of these positive marks will help sway some hearts and minds. In the meantime, he and the Eagles will simply try to bolster his case by doing their job on the court.

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