By Aiya Cancio/El Inde
The ball was in the air when the final buzzer rang. Fans in The Gregory School’s gym in Tucson watched with hope or dread, as the basketball hit the backboard. One player from the home team collapsed onto the court in defeat, as his teammates dropped their heads with dejection.
The visiting players from Patagonia Union High School ran into the stands to celebrate with family and friends. They had just upset The Gregory School Hawks on their homecourt to keep the season alive. For the first time in four years, Patagonia Union High School had advanced past the first round of the State playoffs to become part of the ‘Elite 8’ in the 1A conference for the state of Arizona, a feat that head coach Nate Porter called “potentially the best season in Patagonia Union High School boys’ history.”
PUHS and The Gregory School are in the same Arizona 1A South league, so they play each other often. The Lobos had matched up against the Hawks twice this season already – losing by 4 points in December, and then winning by 7 points in a February game.
The first win against the Hawks, however, was played without senior guard Josiah Prior, The Gregory School’s captain and star. The upset win on Feb. 15 further intensified the rivalry between the two schools.
In order to be a part of history, Patagonia had to pull off the biggest upset of their season and fight their way to a win in a drama-filled game against a team they had never beaten prior to this year. Going into the playoffs, the Patagonia Lobos were a No. 13 seed, while The Gregory School Hawks were a No. 4 seed. It was the kind of game that every sports fan loves to watch, and every athlete wants to win.
With only a minute and 30 seconds left to play in the game, The Gregory School led 53-50. Hawks captain Josiah Prior began taunting Lobos fans, waving them goodbye as Patagonia fans’ hopes of victory began to slip.
But then the magic happened. On Patagonia’s final possession, the ball wound up in senior Russell Sherman’s hands. He made a game-winning layup with 3.2 seconds on the clock. The Patagonia fans went crazy.
“If you guys win this game, you can’t rush the court,” one fan said to the eager Patagonia crowd. The Hawks ran their out of bounds play from under their own basket. The team’s only chance to win this game now all came down to a miracle shot by Josiah Prior, who heaved the ball near midcourt. It bounced off the backboard.
It was undoubtedly Patagonia’s best performance of the season, and probably of the last four years, too.
Anna Coleman, the director of the Patagonia Youth Enrichment Center, and known around town for her encouragement of Patagonia’s younger generations, knew right away what this win meant for the community.
“This is history,” she said, explaining why showing support for high school sports in Patagonia is something she loves to do. “Going to these sporting events and supporting the school shows [the players] that they’re important,” she said.
For most of the players on the team, they have been going to Coleman’s youth center since they were in middle school.
“They may not be my biological kids but we spend so many hours together,” Coleman said. “That’s just how I was raised; family supports family.”
Patagonia’s high school sports scene, though small, is taken very seriously by the community. Being a part of Arizona’s Interscholastic Association (AIA) 1A conference means that Patagonia falls under the category of one of the smallest high schools in the state. With a student enrollment that hovers around 100, Patagonia Union High School was a third of the size of almost every other team they were competing against in the State Championships. While that may not mean anything for the actual game itself, it does mean something when Patagonia fans show up to away games in larger numbers than one might expect, despite the fact that they come from a town with a population of less than a thousand.
“I’m humbled to have all these people that love us and are crazy about us,” said sophomore Santiny Aguilar, the star of the Feb. 15 game. “It means so much to me.”
While perhaps The Gregory School fans and players might have been surprised by Patagonia’s crowd turnout, Patagonians are used to cheering on their home team in big games. “We always travel in a pack,” Russell Sherman said after the game.
When PUHS fans travel to other away games, the visitor’s bleachers can get so loud that they sometimes overpower the rest of the noise in the gym. At halftime, everyone hugs and greets each other. During moments like these, the closeness of Patagonia’s community is revealed.
The same thing happened at the next game, when Patagonia took on the Fort Thomas Apaches at Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott on Feb. 20. While at a much bigger venue than they were used to, and despite the 273-mile journey, Patagonians still packed the place, decked in orange and black to support their favorite basketball team. The Lobos fought hard, but they lost a brutal game that consisted of turnovers and missed shots to the eventual 1A state champions. After the game, the players gathered to take a photo at center court, commemorating a season that would not soon be forgotten.
It’s no surprise that this team treats each other like family, considering a number of the players are brothers or have other family relations. Junior Julian Vasquez, and senior Sebastian Vasquez, are brothers. Sophomore Santiny Aguilar and senior Isaiah Ruiz are brothers, and Santiny Aguilar and junior Lalo Aguilar are cousins. Junior Alex Santos’ brother, Jose, is the student assistant coach. Though this is unusual for most high school sports teams, the kids in Patagonia have grown up playing basketball at the park together, so it’s only natural that a number of them compete together for their school.
Despite losing their graduating seniors, the Lobos will bring back their young core talent next season. The future is brighter than ever in Patagonia after Lalo Aguilar and Julian Vasquez earned second team region awards and Santiny Aguilar made honorable mention. Coach Porter was awarded “Coach of the Year” in his very first season with the Lobos.
This season may be over, but the people of Patagonia are already excited for the next one. And one thing is clear: Patagonians love their basketball.
Editor’s note: A version of this story will appear in the summer 2020 special issue of the Patagonia Regional Times.