The ride to Las Vegas, Nevada from Hobbs and back again is long, circuitous, tedious.
But, for the Zias Elite fifth- and sixth-grade girls basketball teams, totally worth it.
The fifth-graders played for Zias Elite 2029, the sixth-graders for Zias Elite 2028, based on the years each class is due to graduate from high school. Both teams headed to Vegas last week for the AAU West Coast National Tournament, competing against teams from Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City and more. And yet it wasn’t a case of bumpkins awed by bright lights, big city. It was actually small-town basketball players showing those big-city teams how it’s done, showing just how honed their skills are despite their town’s modest size.
Both won West Coast National championships.
That made the long trip home on Monday a lot easier to bear.
“It was a pretty big deal,” Zias Elite 2028 coach Lance Crenshaw said, while taking a road-trip break in Flagstaff, Arizona Monday afternoon. “We beat teams from L.A., Vegas, Seattle, Sacramento – a lot bigger cities than Hobbs. It was super exciting because we didn’t have our full roster there; we were short several girls, but we had several girls step up and fill those roles.”
Crenshaw and fellow coach Leonel Mojica put it all together, made it work.
“Me and him are like bread and butter,” Crenshaw said. “I couldn’t do it alone, and he couldn’t do it alone.”
The Zias Elite 2029 team was coached by Crenshaw’s wife, Lynda, and Eric Mojica.
Both teams excelled, mostly for the same reason. Each team thrived on relentless defense – pressure, pressure and more pressure.
“Our philosophy, we like to run the Hobbs Eagles press,” Crenshaw said, “what the (varsity) boys have been doing for 50-some-odd years. When we started this team, that’s what we based everything off of. We never played zone defense; we played man-to-man the entire tournament.”
Which, Crenshaw says, is good for the girls’ present and future.
“Because when these girls start getting looked at by college coaches, they (the coaches) are going to look at how they (the players) survive playing man-to-man defense. We’ve been around several high-profile tournaments where there are several high-profile coaches watching. We get to talk to them, they follow our team, asking, ‘What were their shooting percentages?’ That’s what people in Hobbs might not understand – that these girls are only in fifth or sixth grade and they’re already on the radar of college coaches.”
The Zias Elite sixth-grade team opened on Thursday with a 34-18 win over CBC Elite from Seattle, followed by a 66-44 rout of Salesian Force from Los Angeles.
Friday, the sixth-grade Zias beat Lady Prodigy Northwest out of Portland, Oregon, 51-31. And Saturday, the Zias walloped the Salt Lake City Aces 56-26.
Lastly came Sunday’s championship game, which the sixth-grade Zias won 50-37 over CBC Elite, the same Seattle team from the first round that had played its way back, all the way to the title game.
Zias Elite, though, proved too much for CBC Elite both times, and completed an undefeated run to the sixth-grade tournament championship.
The Zias Elite fifth-grade team opened its tournament on Thursday with a 67-2 nail-biter against West Coast United of Stockton, California.
Friday brought a mixed bag for the Zias Elite 2029, who beat the Long Beach (California) Hurricanes 62-46 before losing to a Sacramento team called the Bay Area Lady Legends, 43-40, to end pool play.
Bracket play began on Saturday, and the fifth-grade Zias opened it with a 64-48 win over the Torrance (California) Outlaws. The Zias then went on to trounce Team Eleate out of Los Angeles, 66-29, before ending the weekend by routing the Lady Legends 41-19 when it counted most, and won the tournament championship.
“With the fifth-grade team it was great because they’ve finished second place at a lot of national tournaments,” Crenshaw said. “It’s been a while since they’d won a national tournament. … They were just clicking on all cylinders, their motor was going. They made some adjustments from that first game when they played the Lady Legends.”
There are more tournament challenges to come. Next up is The Best of the Best Invite-Only Tournament, August 5-7 in Dallas. To hang in there, “you’ve got to be a successful team,” Crenshaw said, “you’ve got to be a good team.”
The sixth-grade team plays in the Southwest Regional in Irving, Texas from Sept 9 through 11, and if they win there they go to Knoxville, Tennessee for the Ladies Ball Championship in October.
But for this week, both teams can savor what they did in Las Vegas.
“We are coming back to Hobbs,” Crenshaw said, “as West Coast National champions.”