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Mestas leaves footprints with perfect season

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The Hagerman Bobcats pose with the state championship banner and trophy after winning the Class 1A State Championship in 2011. (Daily Record File Photo)

Hagerman’s basketball coach Anthony Mestas was beginning his seventh year. The year before, the Bobcats went 25-5 and lost in the semifinals. In 2011, there was a hunger in his eyes, an unquenchable thirst that would not go away until he finished his business. Nothing would satisfy him until he was holding the Blue Trophy, a goal he set out to attain when he took the job.

Hagerman coach Anthony Mestas, right, hugs senior Ryan Gomez during the state championship game in 2011 against Cliff. (Daily Record File Photo)

“We were winning before,” Mestas said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump and win state. In 2010, we went to the semifinals in 2A.”

Unconsciously, Mestas was chasing a shadow — he wanted to differentiate himself from the other coaches that had drawn up plays on the sideline, and come before him. Not only was he in competition against other teams, but against the ghost of former Bobcats state championship teams that went back to back in 1923 and ‘24.

“I was so focused on getting those kids to win,” Mestas said. “We were chasing history and we did it. Going through it we were just trying to win state.”

Heading into the season, Mestas knew his team was special. He had great guard play, post players that could play inside, and players that could dunk the ball. The Bobcats pressed and were deep. Mestas could call on 10 players and not have a dropoff in production. Often times when he made a substitution, it gave the team a lift.

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Seniors lead the way

Hagerman was as subtle on defense as a punch to the gut. They were going to press teams at the introduction of the game, with their tight man-to-man defense. The Bobcats could do it all, this team was hungry and gifted. They were led by seniors looking to leave their imprint on their four years together but also a town, school, and for the rest of their lives, each other. The “sterling seniors” were: Jose Medrano, Dylan Sant,  Michael Garcia, Isaac Bejarano, Edward Montoya, Ryan Gomez and Damian Hamilton.

The difference in the season was one tournament that showed them how far this team had come in four years under Mestas. Hagerman won the John Reid Dexter Invitational Basketball Tournament. In that tournament, Hagerman beat a particularly good 4A Lovington team. Lovington beat a Goddard basketball team that made it to the state championship game that year. They also beat a very good 2A Tularosa team that featured the Coleman brothers who went on to play at New Mexico State.

Hagerman felt that after winning that tournament, they had a chance to be a special team and to accomplish all the goals set before them, which was getting to The Pit and win a Blue Trophy.

“Our focus was to get that Blue Trophy,” Mestas said. “After we won the district, we said, ‘We have to go undefeated these next four games to win it all.’”

In the round of 16, the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship. Hagerman beat a good McCurdy team in the quarterfinals and a great Fort Sumner team in the semifinals. The Bobcats had no time to be nervous during their playoff run. The Bobcats had a really good practice on Friday at St. Pius X High School and played at 8 a.m. Saturday against an undefeated Cliff team.

All season long, Mestas had his team practice every Saturday at 8 a.m. Mestas was confident his team had a chance to win the Blue Trophy.

Defining tournament

For Mestas, the key to their season was not the season or the Dexter Reid Invitational; those were guideposts along the way to The Pit. Mestas’ key decision, which helped improve his team, was allowing them to play more talented schools in the summer basketball tournaments. He felt not only were Bejarano and Montoya the two best returning guards in the state that year, but also his best one-two combo he has coached. He believed that even if his teams were beaten in the summer games, they would never see competition that good during their basketball season.

Mestas felt his team’s mindset was different from summer to the beginning of fall practice. He had very little to no discipline problems, every player had the attitude of a champion and checked their attitude at the door. All the players wanted was what was best for the team and to win. They never had a problem practicing for an extra hour following a poor game.

Mestas was hard on his team but even more importantly, he was hard on himself. Every player and coach took ownership of the mission to accomplish the goal of being a champion. After all, it had only been 87 years since Hagerman had hung a championship banner. No, everyone on the team was all in on making history and leaving footprints.

Mestas always dressed in his green sports jacket, dress shirt, and tie with black slacks and black shoes because he felt it brought the Bobcats good luck. Mestas was all about setting goals and conquering them. The team planned on being at The Pit on St. Patrick’s Day, so he wore it to The Pit in honor of that day.

The night before the championship game, Mestas gathered his team and told them to live in the moment and represent their community, themselves, and family with pride.

Hagerman came into the game undefeated at 30-0 and would square off against an undefeated Cliff team whose record was 29-0. Mestas was seeking his first title, but he would have to win it against Hall of Fame coach Pete Shock. The Bobcats needed a big fourth quarter and a great effort by Bejarano and others to win. Hagerman turned back Cliff, 70-58.

“It feels great to come out victorious and stick to our game plan and beat a good team like Cliff,” Bejarano said after the game. “It’s great to bring one back to our hometown, the town we’ve been living in our whole life. We finally brought it back.”

Looking back, Bejarano ended up being the state of New Mexico’s all-time leading prep scorer. Bejarano could have put the record out of reach, but during that special season, Mestas took him out early when games were decided. Mestas didn’t want to burn Bejarano out or risk injury. The one important factor about Bejarano was he had the ability to create his own shot and get to the basket or pull up at any time. He was able to keep the defense honest. Bejarano was able to create his own shot when Hagerman needed a basket or pass to an open teammate for an easy bucket.

Mestas and Hagerman are perfect

The pressure started mounting after the 16th game. Mestas felt his players were hungry and wanted to win every game. He credits his assistant coaches, Jesus Trujillo,  Casey Crandall and Andrew Rodriguez, along with an incredibly supportive administration that helped him in his 10 years as a coach at Hagerman.

Mestas won 244 games, eight district championships, and made it to state nine years. He was in the championship game three times and won it twice. Mestas knows basketball is basketball no matter what classification your team is playing in. Winning a championship is a championship at The Pit. For Mestas, winning at The Pit is the mecca of basketball in high school. He knows that some coaches have coached their whole career to have a dream of one day coaching for a championship in The Pit and never make it.

“That’s something I always dreamed of,” Mestas said. “I had three goals when I got into coaching. One, I always wanted to coach in The Pit. I got to do that. No. 2. I wanted to win a state championship at The Pit; I did that twice. No. 3. The goal was to go undefeated and I did that.”

The team will have a reunion dinner next summer to mark the 10-year anniversary of their 31-0 undefeated season. Hagerman is one of 16 teams in New Mexico’s basketball 100-year history to be undefeated.

“My Hagerman team was unbelievable,” Mestas said. “It was an amazing community and I love Hagerman. I needed to grow up as a man. I learned so much from those kids, and I keep in contact with those kids today. It was a great time in my life. My wife, Suanne, has been my rock these last 16 years, and she’s been the best mom to our two boys. Being a coach’s wife has not been easy. I give her all the credit in the world to know she holds it down so I can be successful in my career as a coach. I could never do this without her.”

No matter what happens to Mestas in his life or basketball career, that 2011 Hagerman team will hang on him like a scarlet letter, that undefeated season will place him in immortality because for one season, he and his Bobcats were perfect.

Sports editor J.T. Keith can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 304, or sports@rdrnews.com.