50 years to the day, Falcons return to mid-court of the ‘Pit’

Team also recognized at 50-year reunion banquet of champions March 10

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Half a century to the day and in front of a mixed crowd of Pecos and Santa Rosa fans, members of the Taos Central Catholic Falcons stepped onto the hallowed tongue-in-groove floor of WisePies Arena, aka the “Pit,” to be acknowledged for their one and only state championship title earned before the school’s eventual shuttering in 1967. The halftime ceremony was another fitting tribute to a fabulous team in a fabulous arena.

The Pecos Panthers and Santa Rosa Lions happened to be the two teams vying for a state title in this year’s Class 3A in the 10 a.m. game March 11, which provided a few historic coincidences.

Santa Rosa was the team Taos Central played in the quarterfinal game at 9:30 a.m. March 9, 1967 – making this the first high school basketball game scheduled and played in the newly christened facility at the University of New Mexico (UNM). University Arena, as it was officially named when it opened Dec. 1, 1966, was used as a state high school basketball venue along with Johnson Gymnasium (on the campus of UNM) and hosted the top half of the opening games of the Class B teams in the 1967 tournament. As the champions of their respective region, the Taos Central was matched up with the Lions, the runner-up in their region. Taos would go on to win that game by a score of 63-56.

Records from that era showed how difficult it was to make it to the state tournament in the first place. Central Catholic belonged to District 2B and was one of 18 teams from that league that had to play out (as opposed to the current invitational process) in a postseason tournament to get into a four-team regional tournament in order to enter the state tourney as a regional champ or runner-up. Thus, on Feb. 22-25, 1967, Taos Central embarked on its journey toward a state title by competing in a district bracket that included the Pojoaque Elks, El Rito Eagles, McCurdy Bobcats, Peñasco Panthers, St. Katherine’s Thunderbirds, New Mexico School for the Deaf (NMSD) Roadrunners, Questa Wildcats, Institute of American Indian Arts (I.A.I.A) Braves, Pecos Panthers, Central Falcons, Escalante Lobos, Ojo Caliente Mustangs, Mora Rangers, Santa Cruz Crusaders, Dulce Hawks and Coronado Leopards.

Central would advance to the finals by receiving a bye in the first round, defeating Pojoaque in the quarterfinals and knocking off St. Katherine’s in the semifinals. Meeting Pecos in the district championship game, the Falcons would fall to the Panthers by three points. After advancing in the district, there was still a 16-team region that teams had to get past to punch their ticket to the state playoff. A rematch in the finals of the regional championship would have the Falcons garner a revenge of sorts by defeating Pecos by a mere three points as well on March 4, 1967.

Winning the state opener against Santa Rosa earned the Falcons a final-four appearance and a second game in the Pit. Boosted by extraordinary play from Donald Martinez, Michael Martinez and Herman Trujillo, the Falcons defeated the Jal Panthers in the semifinal game by a final score of 64-63. Due to the size difference, the game was described as a “David-versus-Goliath” sort of game that is best remembered by a game-saving steal and shot by Manuel Ortiz in the waning moments of the exciting tilt.

A fourth meeting between Pecos and Taos Central loomed as the Panthers made it past the Albuquerque Academy Chargers in the quarterfinals and the San Jon Coyotes in the semifinals. The 11 a.m. Class B title game was the first scheduled championship basketball contest of any level ever played at the Pit in 1967, and the Falcons would prevail in a 56-45 victory – earning the chance to take down the original nets from the storied complex.

“We didn’t cut them, though,” said Herman Trujillo, who used his teammate’s shoulders to hoist himself up to the rim to pry the cotton web from its hooks. “We took our time and brought them back to Taos fully intact.”

The loss for Pecos would be the start of a 50-year state title drought, which coincidentally ended this year as the modern-day Panthers claimed the Class 3A title by beating the Lions 60-49.

As for the Falcons, their championship run would include other memorable moments, like Barbara McCarthy being named the 1967 assistant coach of the year, Michael Martinez being named to the all-state team, the caravan of several “hundreds of cars” that greeted the team near the “horseshoe” upon returning from Albuquerque and the subsequent celebration in the Central gym.

“The memories of that time made such an impact on my life and is a true testament to what a close community can achieve with hard [work] and dedication,” said coach Tom McCarthy in a written statement. “It was a great year.”

The weekend tribute included a reunion banquet for other teams that won state titles from the same year and the boys and girls state champions from 25 years ago. In Class A, it was the St. Michael’s Horsemen who claimed the crown. The Sandia Matadors claimed it in Class AA. The attending Falcons or their respective stand-ins were adorned with commemorative New Mexico Activities Association medals.

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