Basketball bonds: EPAC tournament unites rural communities

Lance Widner, 11, of Melrose tries to pump up the crowd during Friday’s semifinal game against Texico.

By John Eisel: CNJ sports writer

Each January, for more than a half-century, basketball reunites rural eastern New Mexico.

The EPAC tournament reunites old friends, former rivals, coaches, and conjures up memories of a time when players wore Converse high-tops and there was no 3-point line.

“I met all the guys I used to know. It was like going-home week, really,” former San Jon coach and tournament co-founder Ed Lee said Thursday while taking in some tournament action at Texico High School. “Half of them that have walked in (to the gym) I knew or have coached against.”

Lee’s run-and-gun San Jon team won the first six EPAC championships starting in 1958. The Coyotes won just one more title (1967) as schools such as Melrose, Grady and Texico have taken turns dominating the boys tournament in the last two decades.

The tournament has had several homes over the years, depending on who had the biggest or more modern gym.
Scattered among the crowd at Friday’s Texico-Elida girls basketball game were fans from schools who played earlier in the day.

“To me, it’s just a big family oriented tournament, because you see the same last names that you saw 20 years ago,” said Texico schools superintendent R.L. Richards.

Grady senior Jennifer Blackburn and freshman Katarina Grau are second-generation EPAC players. Jennifer’s father, Jay, and Katarina’s father, Lane, were on the 1978 Grady team that won EPAC and the state championship.

Blackburn and Grau also have brothers playing for Grady this year.

“My dad tells me every year, ‘We won EPAC, we won state,’” Jennifer Blackburn said.

Blackburn’s aunt, Julie, was on the 1987 Grady team, which was the last Lady Broncho team to win EPAC before Jennifer Blackburn’s team won the tournament last year.

“It’s been a tradition. All the older people will talk about when they were playing since the beginning,” Jennifer Blackburn said.

Grau rolls her eyes as the two talk about attending EPAC since they could remember. But they’ve looked forward to playing in EPAC for just as long.

“Basketball drives the community and gives us a chance to bring us together,” Heather Blackburn said.

Outside of the state tournament, the crowds and games for the tournament are more intense than most other games during the season.

Winning the EPAC is no small feat as more than a third of past EPAC boys champs have reached the state championship game. The ratio jumps to 70 percent for the champion of the girls tournament.

“For us, it’s almost as big as the state tournament; to have the bragging rights of EPAC,” Richards said.
Richards likened EPAC to a continuation of the settling of the area.

Independent people came and tried to tame the land, but found they could only survive by joining together, he said.
Those independent people gave way to independent towns. They now come together for EPAC, if not to survive, then to celebrate.

“It brings a whole regionalism to the group even though we’re so individual,” he said.

“It’s more than a tournament. It’s hard to describe it,” Richards said. “I know its the best high school tournament in the state.”