Organizers hope this weekend’s basketball tournament at San Juan College is the beginning of an organized athletic program that would give unheralded Four Corners talent a chance to shine.
San Juan College’s Tony Dinallo and Carlton Downing have worked with four other community and technical colleges to organize a five-team round-robin basketball tournament for men's and women's teams this Saturday at the college’s Health and Human Performance Center.
"San Juan College has a men's and women's basketball team, finally," said Dinallo, the college's basketball class instructor and coach for the men's and women's teams.
The two San Juan College teams will square off against Diné College from Tsaile, Ariz., and Navajo Technical College out of Chinle, Ariz., as well as Ogala Lakota College from South Dakota and the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute based in Albuquerque.
"A good three months ago or so, we had a group meeting at the college with folks from Diné, SIPI and Navajo Tech," said Downing, who is the Health and Human Performance Center facility manager. "We sat down and talked about how we could do something to form a league and play each other sometimes in volleyball, softball and basketball. Everyone thought for sure they could get a basketball team together, so that is where we are."
None of the teams are affiliated with junior college or NAIA conferences, but Dinallo and Downing hope this is the start of a path that leads to official organized sports at San Juan College.
"We know athletic programs are expensive, but we are trying to show the administrative side of the street that we have a wealth of talent here in the area," Downing said. "If we can just show enough support and interest in the community, we can offset the cost.
"This could blossom into a continuous program. We are going to have scattered tournaments every now and then. More specifically, we want to form a small league or conference for men's and women's basketball."
San Juan College has a solid base of students with the ability to play junior college basketball, Dinallo and Downing both said.
"All of the kids on our teams now have graduated from our area high schools in the last three years. They are kids who didn't have a shot, but they are good players," Dinallo said. "We have one guy from Florida, but the rest are Aztec, Farmington, Piedra Vista, Kirtland, Shiprock and Navajo Prep kids. It is like a Four Corners all star team."
Tryouts were not held for the teams. They were put together from kids in Dinallo's basketball class and other intramural team stars.
Dinallo mentioned Piedra Vista graduate Isaiah Sanchez as a member of the men's team and Meghan Yazzie of Kirtland Central and twin sisters Kristyn and Kristy Bates from Piedra Vista on the women's team.
There is no cost for admission to this weekend's tournament, which begins at 8 a.m. and will conclude with a 10 p.m. game.
Downing said the teams will be organized and the games will be refereed by unpaid officials.
"We wanted players who are committed to playing basketball. We aren't just going to throw it up. We are going to play defense and get after it," Downing said. "We hope this can build momentum and show there is a community interest in sports at San Juan College. If the school wanted to put money toward it and eventually charge for entry fees and all that, we could generate a substantial amount of income."
Dinallo is just happy to provide some of San Juan College's unrecognized athletes a platform to shine.
"This is their chance. If we can build on it from here, it is going to be great," he said. "It would be hard for us to have a football team at the college with all the expenses that go along with it but, if we can do well this Saturday and let them know the expenses for basketball are not like football, this could be the start of something great."
John Livingston may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4648; Follow Livingston on Twitter @jlivi2