Coach Nate Morris stood just yards from his team’s locker room at Toby Roybal Memorial High School, crossed his arms over his chest and turned to look up and over his left shoulder.
Up there, he said, nodding in that direction, he thinks this season will be different for the Santa Fe High girls’ basketball program.
“These six girls are why I feel the way I do,” he said, pausing for a panoramic look at the poster-sized photos of the half-dozen seniors on this year’s Demonettes roster. “You have been here from the start. You know what we’re trying to do here. These girls are the basis of everything we have done. “
Every player has a story that Morris is proud of. From the tough work ethic of guards Olivia Montoya, Laisha Diaz and Kabreya Garcia Romero to the dedication of strikers Marisol Serna, Alexis Espinoza and Sam Montoya, the coach is grateful for the foundation his living have provided.
Morris was hired four years ago to revive a tradition that culminated seven years ago with a state championship span that made it one of the most dominant programs in Class 4A at the time.
“We have the talent in this locker room to be a special team,” he said. “It makes me feel better now than I have since I got here.”
A soccer player at heart – Morris was recruited from California in the late 1980s to play at the University of New Mexico – he came to Santa Fe in 2018 and immediately laid the blueprint for getting things back on track.
He got involved with a youth movement and hugged the incoming newbies and middle school students in hopes of forming a team in his own image. He wanted disciplined, tough, and aggressive players who were willing to sacrifice their ego in favor of a team-oriented approach.
He wanted selflessness, cooperation and belief in the long-term goal.
“I think we’re exactly where we want to be,” said Morris. “Now all we have to do is go out there and prove it. We have all the parts we need. Now we just have to win. “
The Demonettes have already surpassed last season’s overall wins and clearly have the talent to land on the plus side of .500 for the first time since the 2014-15 season. These seniors are supported by two rock solid juniors who have the skills to take on games.
One of them is a familiar face in a not-so-familiar place.
Center Zuriel Vigil, a 6-foot-1 rim protection rebound machine, is back after going missing from surgery last season. She kept in shape by playing club ball.
“It’s so good to be back,” said Vigil. “It definitely feels like it was more than a year ago. You don’t really know how much you miss it until you don’t have it anymore. “
The other is Guardian Maci Cordova, an athletic 5-6 guardian who will share the time with Garcia Romero. Cordova’s speed and basketball IQ are a perfect fit for a team that is facing a demanding schedule outside of the district but seems to have more than one puncher chance in District 5-5A.
Los Lunas dominated the district last year, but has rebuilt itself after the resignation of coach Marty Zeller to take on a different position. Manzano and Rio Grande continue to struggle while Capital was hit hard by the deal. On paper, it looks like a two-team race between the Demonettes and Albuquerque High.
Not that fast, says Morris.
“It’s been a long season and it’s been a long four years,” he said. “We have to go out there and prove it, but I’ll tell you, I like this team. The girls have been through it with me and they know what I want. You don’t see that people aren’t doing their job or are going another way. These players listen and try and that’s all I’ve wanted since we got here. “
While it is fun to light up the crystal ball with a spit and try to see into the future, Morris makes no predictions.
“We don’t play some games that well and we know that,” said Vigil. “We have to improve every day. We have to learn from these things and keep telling ourselves that we can get better. “
It’s this humble grind that equates to sweet music for Morris. When it all comes together, he trusts the players to run the system on their own.
If not, he will use the secret weapon he hopes will be available during the first week of March when a new state champion is crowned.
“One of the best things about this team is that I can get five in and five out without losing anything,” said Morris. “A lot of teams don’t have that, but I’m confident that every player on this team can help. If that means putting in four or five new players at the same time, I’ll do it. What’s even better is that they all understand what we’re trying to do. “
For a team that has moved in the gray area of competitive but not well for the past half decade, it’s time to believe, said Morris.
“You can believe because of the kids up there,” he said, rolling his gaze back towards those portraits. “The seniors brought us here. It’s your team now. “