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Desert Academy, Waldorf schools struggled to field girls basketball teams until they combined forces

January 26, 2018 GMT

Martine Perez didn’t know what getting a breather off the basketball court was like until this year.

To say that she enjoys it is an understatement.

“For however long it is, it’s the best part of the game,” the senior wing from Santa Fe Waldorf said.

Until the 2017-18 season, Perez was usually a part of an iron-girl group of players for Waldorf, often finishing out the season with five players, the minimum required for a girls basketball team. At Desert Academy, the situation was a little better — but not by much.

“I know as an eighth-grader, they didn’t have enough players, so they pulled me up to varsity,” Desert Academy sophomore Olivia Rigatti said. “It was not fun playing with all the high-schoolers. Then you get a lot of girls who do it just so you have a team, but they’re not very committed and they don’t show up.”

Two programs, struggling with numbers, decided that maybe it was time to join forces so that those committed to the sport could play without worrying if enough teammates would show up for practices and games.

Thus was born the Desert Academy/Santa Fe Waldorf Wild Wolves co-op program (three players from Waldorf, seven from Desert Academy), the nickname a combination of their respective schools’ nicknames (Wildcats at Desert Academy, Wolves at Waldorf). It’s not uncommon for small schools that struggle to field teams to merge teams — Roy and Mosquero have done that for several years, as have House and Fort Sumner. But for two private schools to do that?

It’s such a rare feat that New Mexico Activities Association associate director Dusty Young is not aware of two private schools forming a co-op team. After Desert Academy and Waldorf’s proposal was OK’d by the NMAA in the summer for a three-year span, Albuquerque’s Evangel Christian and Oak Grove Classical formed a co-op boys team. But the Wild Wolves got to the finish line first, making them the first private school co-op in years, and maybe ever.

Prior to Thursday’s 58-15 District 3-3A loss to district leader Pecos, the Wild Wolves had won five straight games. Still, a 6-9 record is beyond Desert Academy/Waldorf head coach Mike Velarde’s wildest dreams.

“I knew when I took this job, it was going to be a challenge,” Velarde said. “[Former Desert Academy athletic director Natalie Passalacqua] and I joked about it. Natalie said, ‘I want 10 wins this year,’ and I said laughing, ‘Well, I’ll do my best.’ ”

The challenge is that many of the Wild Wolves have limited experience playing the sport. Some came from volleyball (like Waldorf’s Hannah Laga Abrams) or played soccer (like Desert Academy’s Annaleise Rios). But they echoed the same sentiment: They wanted to play basketball, not just be a part of a basketball team.

“I joined last year because they weren’t going to have a team,” Rios said. “I knew from playing on the soccer team how terrible it is not to have a bench or not have a team. What Martine did for basketball, I did for soccer the past two years – trying to get girls to come out and play.”

The irony is that both schools have good volleyball programs. Both teams made the state tournament — Desert Academy in Class 3A, Waldorf in 1A — for the past four seasons, and both advanced as far as the state semifinals. Yet, when it came to basketball, the interest was almost nonexistent.

Waldorf freshman Carolyn Kyser was one of the few at the school who wanted to play basketball even though she admitted that she had not played the sport much until she was a seventh-grader.

“Everybody there wants to play volleyball,” Kyser said. “I joined the volleyball team, and there wasn’t a lot of running, but that’s why I joined basketball. I like running. That’s what I did soccer [Waldorf has a junior varsity team] and basketball. I like the physicalness of it.”

The running issue touched a nerve with some of the Wild Wolves.

“They don’t want to run,” Hailee Scarborough said of the volleyball players.

“Yeah, pretty much the running and the contact,” Perez said. “It’s a big thing for some girls.”

Verlarde hopes that the little bit of success Desert Academy/Waldorf gains can rub off on other students at both schools. He mentioned that four eighth-graders at Waldorf might move up to the varsity in February just to get the experience of being at that level.

Velarde added that he wants to get a team together to go to camps in the state and even to Colorado, because the most important skill the Wild Wolves need is playing time. He mentioned that most of his players have made significant progress from the beginning of the year, but adds that he knows the team is well behind the skill level of most teams in 3A.

“I’m thinking if I can get these girls hungry and more committed, and work them hard over the summer, we can be even better,” Velarde said. “Next year, the district [2-2A] is going to be wide open. It’s going to be a level playing field for us.”

As infectious as Velarde’s enthusiasm is, the Wild Wolves appreciate the patience he demonstrates with them as they learn the game.

“He wants us all to learn,” senior Hailee Scarborough said. “He doesn’t try to push us to a level that we’re not at yet. He starts with the basics and builds us up. We’ve never had that from any other coach, because they’d leave after a year. Now we have a foundation that we can start from.”