If you are a true basketball fan, then you must make it a point to attend the Northern Rio Grande basketball tournament at some point in your fandom life. The event is a whirlwind blend of sights and sounds truly unique to Northern New Mexico - wrought with tradition and a top-notch staff who pride themselves on providing the best basketball experience with a high level of professionalism. The trophies, medals and rings are solid and heavy, the committee members aim to please everyone (players, coaches, fans and officials), the games are competitive and fast, the concession food is delicious and the atmosphere is electric.
My first introduction to the Northern Rio Grande - or more affectionately, the NRG league - was during my first visit to Jicarita Peñasco Gymnasium in 1982. Built in the mid-1970s, the relatively new structure (at the time) was well-lit and spacious. In Taos County, the gym was one of the finest basketball facilities around, with a stout, yet springy wood floor and large, bright white triangular walls. On one of those walls was a series of paintings - pennants depicting each of the eight teams in the NRG league.
At the time, the scattered individual murals that stretched across the entire length of the east wall included team names and a picture of each mascot. The Escalante Lobos, Pojoaque Elks, Mesa Vista Trojans, Pecos Panthers, Peñasco Panthers, McCurdy Bobcats, Dulce Hawks, St. Katherine's T-Birds and Santa Fe Indian School Braves each had a section of flat cinder block panel that stood prominently behind the home bleachers. This grouping of teams sparked my curiosity, causing me to wonder how this league came to be and why these specific teams were featured inside this gym.
This past week, the Historic NRG Basketball Tournament was held at Pojoaque Valley High School in Jacona, celebrating its 70th year for the boys and 23rd for the girls.
"We are one of the oldest tournaments in the state," said NRG committee vice president, Ruben Lucero, Jr., alluding to being the third oldest continuing tournament in New Mexico. "We work hard to maintain this tournament tradition and keep this one of the best events teams and fans people come to."
This year's teams included Mora, Escalante, Questa, Peñasco, Pecos, Dulce, Mesa Vista and McCurdy. This was the sixth year both boys and girls tournaments were held at the same time and in the same venue.
Only the Bean Valley and the Gallup Invitational tournaments are older than the NRG league. Started officially in 1948, the NRG also happens to be a conference that has provided a sense of belonging for the various high schools that dotted the region of the upper Rio Grande Valley in North Central New Mexico. Originally, there were other conference competitions, such as a baseball tournament, a cross-country meet and a football championship. Due to limited game schedules and stringent district rules; however, the conference only hosts the basketball tournament in the winter and a track and field meet in the spring.
Along with the NRG, other conferences still exist in various regions of the state to provide the same sense of unity and unique competition among neighboring teams.
The Cowbell Conference includes all the rural schools from the Northeast quadrant of the state while the Eastern Plains Athletic Conference serves the small schools clustered near the Texas border along the Interstate-40 corridor. The Bean Valley Conference includes teams from the center of the state, and all three conferences still host annual tournaments.
Serving only the smaller schools in the region, the NRG's often get overshadowed by bigger tournaments happening in other parts of the state. Coverage of the class 5A and 6A tournaments that take place in the Albuquerque area and Gallup by local television media tends to place those participating teams in the public's eye.
Thus, the attention NRG committee members offer to the class 2A and 3A teams that maintain their charter membership and still attend is like no other. The relationships that exist in corporate sponsorships, facility usage (currently with the Pojoaque Valley Public Schools), referees and media serve the student-athletes in a special way, which includes a fitted ring for the champs.
"They deserve it, these are all our kids," said Ralph Ortiz, whose business donated all the team trophies, plaques and rings. "It makes me happy to see the look on the kids' faces when they put on that championship ring."
Unfortunately, the 2018 NRG tournaments just wrapped up and are in the books. But fear not, basketball aficionados, the Historic NRGs will be back next year. Mark your calendars and prepare to be wowed.
Indeed, the rings are cool.
"Sports Talk" is a periodic commentary from Arcenio J. Trujillo, The Taos News sports editor. If you have an idea or topic for coverage on "Sports Talk," contact Trujillo at firstname.lastname@example.org and include your name, contact information and sports news ideas.