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(Courtesy Photo)

Basketball seasons are typically a work in progress.

You start out slow while you work to integrate athletes from other sports and develop your “basketball legs.” You go to a few tournaments, you start to see some real improvement somewhere around the post-Christmas portion of the regular season, and you hope to see your squad peaking in time to compete for either a regular or tournament district championship.

Cut to 2021, and that story gets much shorter… reads more along the lines of, “Baptize yourselves by fire against a few 5A squads, here’s Carlsbad twice, and we know it’s only been 17 days since you played your opener, but we sort of need you to peak like right now, if it’s not too much trouble, because if you don’t win the district, you’re most likely not going to state.”

The pressure of that scenario alone was probably enough to overwhelm many teams around the state, but the Runnin’ ‘Dog basketball team seemed to relish it. There’s something to be said for thriving under the most challenging of conditions, and that’s exactly what Artesia did. The team gelled swiftly as they prepared for their all-or-nothing District 4-AAAA slate, then powered their way through two rounds against their D4 foes, twice fending off Goddard in overtime to take the district crown and that coveted Class 4A State Tournament berth.

Head coach Michael Mondragon credits the team’s dedication over the course of a roller-coaster ride of a year.

“They worked their tails off all year long,” Mondragon said Friday. “It’s been a year of craziness for all of them, but they pushed through it. Over the last 12 months, they’ve worked really hard. We’ve just challenged them mentally and physically, and that’s why we’re having success right now.”

That success has led the Bulldogs one step away from the ultimate goal. On Saturday, they’ll compete for the 4A state title at The Pit in Albuquerque, making their first appearance in the championship since 2009.

After defeating No. 7 Silver in the quarterfinal round, the last hurdle between the ‘Dogs and the blue-trophy bout was No. 3 Gallup. Artesia had one of its advantages removed before the game even started; whereas the team was supposed to have a home game as the higher seed, the Bengals requested a neutral site, and the semifinal was moved to Ruidoso.

It took the Bulldogs a bit to adjust to the unfamiliar confines, and Gallup was able to jump out to a quick 7-2 lead. A pair of baskets and two from the free-throw line by Jacob Creighton, however, and a bucket by Darius Bishop helped keep the team within a shot, 13-11, going into the second.

There, the ‘Dogs would again tumble into a slight hole, 18-11, before finally finding their rhythm, sparked by a Cord Cox three-pointer. From there, Artesia outscored Gallup 17-6, spreading the offense around as Cox logged two baskets and Creighton, Bishop, Nemicio Hernandez, Marcos Tavera and Nick Sanchez one each.

Up 31-24 heading into the third, the boys in orange got a pair of big treys from Johntae Rodriguez and two buckets by Creighton in a low-scoring quarter, but their 42-37 lead going into the fourth was by no means comfortable.

The ‘Dogs did nearly everything they needed to do in the final eight minutes, however. Rodriguez was dominant driving into the paint, earning not only four baskets but 10 trips to the stripe, where he converted seven attempts. Cox delivered another longball and a pair of his own from the line, and Creighton and Sanchez posted a bucket and a pair of free throws respectively as Artesia closed out the 66-56 victory.

“I was just really proud of our guys,” Mondragon said. “I thought they did a great job of staying together, continuing to work hard, trust each other, and trust the process.

“Gallup threw a punch early. We got down, we weren’t really guarding as well as I wanted us to, but man, the guys just kept fighting, kept scratching. We played great defense, rebounded well. Our guys have a lot of grit this year, and they never quit — they just keep working hard, and that’s why we came out there in the second quarter and jumped on them and took that lead.”

Top-ranked Del Norte had a boxing match of its own Friday against No. 4 Espanola Valley, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to tie things up before edging the Sundevils out in overtime for the 58-51 win. Artesia knows they’ll have their work cut out for them against the Knights’ collection of talented guards.

“They’ve got the leading scorer in the state, Shane Douma-Sanchez, and he’s averaging about 26 a game,” Mondragon said. “He’s supposedly the best guard in the state in 4A, so we’re going to figure that out real quick tomorrow. Then they have another kid, [Judah] Casaus who’s a really good guard as well.

“We match up really well with them overall, so I’m really looking forward to that, but at the end of the day, it’s about us. It’s about what we do. If we go out, take care of the ball, play great team defense, get out in transition and run, let our defense create our offense, we’re gonna be fine.”

The Bulldogs’ focus has always been on the Bulldogs, and it’s paid off in the amount of trust the team has in one another.

“I’ve been coaching a long time, and as far as seniors leading, guys trusting each other, leading by example, and always being great teammates, even since last year that’s something we’ve been really proud to watch them grow into,” said Mondragon. “Just that cohesiveness, playing together — they’re in shape now, they’re sharing the ball extremely well, and all those fundamental things that you work on, they’re starting to shine in all those areas.”

Mondragon has grown, too, over the course of his young career, and Saturday will be his first finals appearance.

“I’m excited, but really for our kids,” he said. “All of this, everything we do, isn’t about us coaches, it’s about us getting the kids to do what we ask them to do and come together as a team, and when they do that — work hard, buy in — stuff like this happens.

“I’m just really happy for them because it validates all that work and time you put in to get to a championship. And it’s hard to get here, too. This state has some really great teams, so I want them to recognize that they’re one of those great teams.”

On the eve of their morning trek to Albuquerque for a 12:30 p.m. title game, the Bulldogs were spending some quality time together, enjoying an Italian meal at Bulldog Pit. Excitement was the prevailing emotion, and Mondragon hopes to see his athletes dispense with the nerves that typically accompany a championship and just enjoy the moment. A moment they’ve earned — together.

“Our guys are excited,” said the coach. “They’re playing really good basketball right now, and continuing to trust one another to do that is going to help us tomorrow. The first thing we’re telling them is have fun. They’ve been pushed, they’ve put in the work, so just go out there and enjoy it, and great things will happen.”