The Pits (Feature)

By Louie St. George III
The Daily Times

SHIPROCK — When fans started lining up before the clock struck noon for last Saturday night’s District 1-4A boys championship game, one thing became abundantly clear:

Chieftain Fever is thriving in Shiprock.

Signs and banners checker the town’s streets and store fronts, and basketball doesn’t just slip into conversation — it is the conversation. The Chiefs, at least for one more weekend, are the lone game in town, and their venerable home digs will serve as the community’s pulse today and Saturday.

The Chieftain Pit, where decibal levels go to die, is renowned for passionate and oversized crowds. The arena seats more than 4,000 while redefining the term “pressure cooker.” Visiting teams often emerge from the locker room starstruck, with players craning their necks at the sight of so many fans packed so close together.

“I think it gives us homecourt advantage because it’s loud and intimidating,” Lady Chiefs senior forward Shantel Begay said Thursday following practice. “People get pretty rowdy and people really get into the games.”

The state tournament tips off today across New Mexico. In Shiprock, the Lady Chiefs, Class 4A’s No. 6 seed, host No. 11 Silver. Top-seeded Kirtland Central welcomes No. 16 Belen, while Piedra Vista, No. 12, and No. 13 Aztec travel to Los Alamos (No. 5) and Moriarty (4), respectively. Navajo Prep commences the 2A tournament with a home game against McCurdy.

On the boys side, the first round starts Saturday. The 11th-seeded Chieftains host No. 6 Artesia, while No. 15 Piedra Vista goes to 4A’s second seed, St. Pius. Farmington, seeded 16th, travels to No. 1 Española Valley. In Class 3A, No. 11 Bloomfield is at sixth-seeded Socorro.

With his team preparing for its final home game, Shiprock girls coach Brady Rivers is pining for a swollen turnout tonight. The coach knows what momentum can do to a basketball team. It can jumpstart a game-changing run, force a visiting team to lose its focus, or lead to super-human performances.

Call it the “sixth man” effect.

“We’re hoping that we do have that sixth man,” Rivers said. “We’ve talked about that several times this week, telling the girls to be ready because we think they’re (fans) going to show up.”

The Chieftain Pit provides one of the premiere homecourt advantages in the state. Thursday evening, more than 24 hours before tonight’s tip-off, banners — proclaiming “Let’s go Chieftains,” “Go! Chieftains Go!” and “Go! Fight! Win!” — already were tacked to the walls. District and state championship banners hung menacingly from the ceiling.

It was, however, a far cry from what’s in store this evening, when frenzied fans again are expected to create a “white-out” — a Shiprock trend where everyone wears white — while filling up the bleachers.

Teams playing for the first time in Shiprock must certainly battle a bout of sensory overload — the noise, the bright lights, the sea of white.

“I don’t think many of the small towns that (we face) have a gym this big, and I don’t think they’ve ever seen a crowd this big, except at The Pit (in Albuquerque),” Begay said. “I think they’re going to start getting nervous about the crowd and the cheering.”

Like her teammates, Begay embraces life at The Chieftain Pit. When asked to recall the loudest home game of her career, Begay quickly offered the 2006 District 1-3A championship game against Thoreau. Then a sophomore, she made four late free throws to help secure a one-point win. But the game’s conclusion did little to quiet — or disperse — a wild crowd, and both teams had to be escorted from the arena.

Rivers, who is in his first season guiding the Lady Chiefs, coached in Phoenix before moving to Shiprock. He said the energy surrounding prep basketball in San Juan County dwarfs the region he came from.

“We didn’t get crowds even half the size of this,” Rivers said. “It’s a lot more exciting here than it was in Phoenix — a lot more exciting. There’s a lot of pressure: Everyone’s excited and expecting you to win. I even got middle school kids telling me ‘go out and win (today).’

“It’s exciting for me, exciting for the players, exciting for the fans and anybody who’s just here to watch,” he added.