As he so often does this time of year, Rick Sanchez climbed a ladder, step by step, until his eyes met the net of Saturday’s 3A girls’ basketball championship game. Alchesay’s fans responded to Sanchez’s ascent with roaring applause, drawing a tip of the cap. Once that was done and he had severed the net from its rim, Sanchez raised it in his left hand, twirled it in circles and brought the crowd to its feet.
For the third time in five years, he and Alchesay were state champions. Given that the Falcons sat out the 2020-21 season due to COVID, it’s really three times in four tries. Somehow, each of those three has been more inexplicable than the last.
In 2019, they stormed through the 2A bracket as a No. 6 seed, winning each game by single digits. In 2022, they were a 6 seed again — this time in 3A, where they emerged from an upset-filled bracket by knocking off No. 12 seed Chinle in the title game.
This time, the seed beside the Falcons’ name was an 8. Again, it didn’t matter. With wins over Wickenburg, Snowflake and Window Rock, they earned a return to the state championship game. And by storming past No. 6 seed Show Low, 52-35, they earned yet another title there.
Afterward, neither Sanchez nor his players could quite explain their postseason magic. The answer, though, might lie in the thousands of Alchesay fans that surrounded them. Year after year, they caravan to wherever the Falcons are playing. On championship weekend, that means making the three-hour journey down from Whiteriver and filling the 14,870-seat Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum to a near-sellout. In a sport often played in front of parents and friends in bare-bones gyms, that carries an intimidation factor.
“All of a sudden, some team comes in and you’ve got thousands of people yelling at you, you get the little shakes,” Sanchez said.
While the crowds increase nerves for Alchesay’s opponents, they give a boost to the Falcons themselves.
“It’s like, when we can’t stop, the crowd can’t stop,” senior forward Jenieth Sanchez said. “So when we keep going, they keep going. And they keep us going as well and they push us.”
That’s certainly what happened Saturday, turning an even game on paper into a lopsided mismatch by the second quarter. At halftime, Alchesay already led, 30-18, behind 14 points from Sanchez, who finished with 18 and said afterwards, “I just felt like it was gonna be a good game. I felt it.”
By midway through the third quarter, the lead spread to 20 on a play that encapsulated Alchesay’s success. The Falcons ran into traffic in the paint but kicked the ball out, moved it around the perimeter and found senior Jaylyn Nashio at the top of the arc to nail a three. In total, 12 of their 20 field goals were assisted.
“We just come together in the end,” Jenieth Sanchez said. “We just trust one another. We all know how each other play and we just all give it all our all in the end.”
From there, the afternoon was largely devoid of drama. Even when Show Low closed the deficit to 15 with four minutes left, bringing some tension into the affair, Sanchez responded by ripping through contact and finishing a left-handed layup. As the ball fell through the hoop, she turned around, flexed and screamed as the crowd broke into their familiar chant of “Alchesay, you are the one.”
After Sanchez finished the three-point play, Show Low never got the deficit back under 15. Once again, Alchesay was atop 3A.