Maybe this years’ edition of the Valencia Jaguars boys’ basketball team needs a clever nickname — something such as the “Close-Call Kids.”
Heading into the holiday break, eight of the Jags first 11 games were decided by five points or less, with VHS coming up short in five of them. It started with a loss at the buzzer in the season opener at Kirtland Central.
“It’s been a challenge to learn how to win,” said Jaguars’ coach Jesse Hathoot. “We underestimated how hard it is to finish games.”
Hathoot said Valencia wasn’t competitive last year in many games in the late going but were competitive in the first 11 games this season.
“We’ve had a fourth-quarter lead in every game that we lost,” except the Los Lunas game Dec. 20.
But the Jaguars seem to be learning how to shut the door as in their last-second 44-43 victory over Española Valley on Dec. 13. Down by one point with three seconds left, junior Damian Estrada was fouled. To “freeze” Estrada, the Sun Devils called a time out to let the pressure build.
“I was nervous but I didn’t want to tell coach,” Estrada said. “The first thing he told me in the huddle was ‘breath. Don’t worry. You’re going to make these free throws.”
But Estrada said Hathoot then told him, “Don’t be shaking, because he saw my legs shaking.”
Estrada managed to steady himself to knock down both free throws to seal the deal to improve the team’s record at the time to 4-6.
A few nights later, Estrada did it again, going coast to coast to hit a game winning layup at the buzzer against Roswell Goddard. The trend continues but the tide may have turned.
“We try to learn from them,” Hathoot said of close games. “We watch a lot of film. We try to teach.”
With the district schedule closing in, Hathoot is optimistic.
“I’m proud of the kids. This team has the talent to compete with everyone in 4A but it’s just a matter of us finishing games.”
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.