The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Texico, Elida favored in EPAC boys' field


January 8, 2020

Kevin Wilson

Elida guard Colton Ferguson talks with coach Jared Fraze during the Citizens Bank Tournament in Texico. Elida, at 10-1, is the second seed in this year's Eastern Plains Athletic Conference tournament and will face either Dora or Floyd Thursday night.

The calendar turns over fast and January comes before you know it.

Meaning the Eastern Plains Athletic Conference boys basketball tournament is upon us.

EPAC, as its commonly known, is a tournament that provides an early-season challenge for the small schools that partake in it.

“It proves who’s the best on this side of the state,” Elida boys head coach Jared Fraze said. “When I was a kid growing up over here it was just exciting to see all the local teams deciding who was the best. And I played in it, and my kids will probably play in it.”

The 2020 EPAC tournament tips off 3 p.m. today at Melrose High’s new gymnasium, with fourth-seeded Logan and fifth-seeded Fort Sumner doing the honors of playing the first boys game.

Eighth-seeded Tatum and ninth-seeded Clovis Christian are next, playing a 4:30 p.m. game at Melrose’s old gym, followed by third-seeded Melrose against sixth-seeded Grady at 6 p.m. in Melrose’s new gym, then seventh-seeded Dora against 10th-seeded Floyd at 7:30 p.m. in the Buffaloes’ old gym.

Four-time defending champion Texico, this year’s top seed, will play the Tatum-Clovis Christian winner in a 4:30 p.m. quarterfinal Thursday at Melrose’s new gym, preceded by a 3 p.m. matchup between the Tatum-Clovis Christian loser against the Logan-Fort Sumner loser in the old gym.

Texico’s game is followed by the Melrose-Grady loser against the Dora-Floyd loser at 6 p.m. in the old Melrose gym, then second-seeded Elida against the Dora-Floyd winner at 7:30 p.m. in Melrose’s new gym.

The action shifts to Eastern New Mexico University’s Greyhound Arena in Portales on Friday, beginning with a 9 a.m. loser’s bracket game. And then the Melrose-Grady winner from Wednesday plays Thursday’s Elida vs. Dora or Floyd winner in a 2:15 p.m. semifinal, followed by Wednesday’s Logan-Fort Sumner winner playing Thursday’s Texico vs. Tatum or Clovis Christian winner in a 5:45 p.m. semifinal.

The finals are Saturday at Greyhound Arena, with a loser’s bracket game at 9 a.m., a seventh-place game at 12:30 p.m., the third-place consolation game at 4 p.m., and then the title game at 8 p.m.

It’s a four-day slog — at least a three-day slog for top-seeded teams with first-round byes — which Texico has made successfully over the past four seasons and eight of the last 10. The Wolverines’ 64-55 comeback title-game victory over Fort Sumner a year ago earned them something they had never achieved previously in EPAC tournament play — a championship four-peat.

Pretty impressive. It doesn’t, however, guarantee the Wolverines anything this year.

“Ah, we don’t look at that a whole lot,” Craig Cook, a former Texico assistant who will be participating in his first EPAC showdown as Wolverines head coach, said of Texico’s recent dominance in the small-school tournament. “I think that’s an accomplishment that you carry with you, but you just set the goal of let’s just worry about one game at a time. You don’t get caught up in the past. ... We’re obviously proud of our program and our history in the EPAC tournament, but you’ve got to move on. ... You’ve got to make sure that you step up and perform your best in every game, against every team.”

Cook’s team heads into this week’s tournament with a 6-3 record. Elida comes in at 10-1, earning the Tigers a No. 2 seed.

“I think that’s a good thing, the boys deserve it,” Fraze said. “They’ve worked really hard up to this point.”

Melrose is a two-time defending state Class 1A champion that, with its 8-1 record, may be on the way to forging a path toward three consecutive state crowns. This tournament could help propel the Buffaloes in that direction, as climbing to the top of the EPAC ladder against other small schools — and in Texico’s case, a larger school than Melrose — could bode well for the Buffs being able to do so against Class A teams in March.

“Generally you’re going to see the best teams in 1A; Texico’s obviously one of the best teams in 2A,” Melrose head coach Kevin Lackey said. “Competition’s good and gets us ready for the state-tournament-type feel. It’s a good indication of where we’re at at this point in the season.”

“It is good preparation,” Fraze said. “You’re going to know where you need to be and where you’re at after this tournament.”

Melrose is the only participating team with a home-court advantage, getting the first two rounds in the Buffaloes’ gymnasiums.

“It’s nice that we have the facilities that we can do that,” Lackey said. “Hopefully we can take advantage of it.”

Lackey’s team was awarded the No. 3 seed, meaning the Buffaloes have to play today instead of enjoying a first-round bye. He’s not overly concerned about it, though.

“I felt like coming into it we’d be 1 to 3,” he said. “I thought we had a good arguement for any of those seeds, but I don’t get caught up in the seeding. If we play really well, we’ll have success; if we don’t play well, we can get beat by any team. ... It’s about being the best version of ourselves.”

Tuesday night Texico visited Portales, the Wolverines’ second game since the holidays. Saturday they lost a close one to Jal, 32-30, which Cook saw as a Texico team that needed to shake off the rust, but more importantly a team that could be toppled if it doesn’t focus.

“We didn’t play our best (against Jal),” Cook said. “Our kids know they’re going to have to step up and take care of every game from here on. Gotta know seeding doesn’t matter at this point; you’ve got to take care of whatever seed you’re facing in the bracket and go one at a time. I’ve been around long enough too that I know each kid on each team (in the EPAC tournament), and each team has players that can definitely make a statement, make a run, regardless of who they’re playing.”

No matter the school size, no matter the win-loss record, the EPAC competition should be fierce.

“In my opinion, I think it’s gone up the past couple of years, it keeps improving,” Cook said. “You’ve got a team like Elida, and their record definitely shows it. There’s a no-doubter like Melrose and then there are teams like us and Grady who’s record might not show it. That’s what I like about the tournament, that it’s up for grabs.”

While Texico and Elida await today’s winners to find out who they play Thursday, Melrose is among the teams knowing their opening opponent. And in the Buffaloes’ case it’s sixth-seeded Grady (5-4) tonight.

“They’re in our district (6-1A),” Lackey said. “That’s probably the one thing I don’t like about the draw, facing a district opponent, a team we’ve already played once. They’re a familiar foe; we both know a lot about each other. I’m sure both teams will give a good effort, but not show everything that they might do later in the season.”

For Melrose, winning the tournament would mean a lot prestige-wise and indicate a lot about how good the Buffaloes are. But, Lackey notes that it’s not a prerequisite to winning another state championship.

“I think it would be big for our school; our school hasn’t won one since ’93,” Lackey said. “So trying to break over that hurdle and win EPAC I think would be good for the school. But we won back-to-back state championships (the past two seasons) and we didn’t win EPAC either year. Our goal is to compete for another state championship. So to win EPAC would just be a bonus to the work that we’re putting in.”


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