Lady Chieftain seniors earn ultimate sendoff

Shiprock seniors suffered through years of close losses deep in the state playoffs before finally winning the 4A championship on Friday

Jake Newby

ALBUQUERQUE — The seniors on the Shiprock girls basketball team carried years of state tournament heartbreak with them into Friday's championship game at The Pit.

From left, Shiprock seniors Melanie Secody, Tanisha Begay and Paige Dale answer questions at a post-game press conference Friday at The Pit in Albuquerque.

Tanisha Begay and Melanie Secody were freshmen on the team four years ago when the Lady Chieftains reached the 3A state title game, only to fall 62-59 to Portales.

Then, in the 2014-2015 season, Paige Dale joined those two on a reclassified Shiprock squad that was ousted 48-40 by Hope Christian in the 4A semifinal.

And last season, Kacy Begay and the others were part of an excellent Shiprock team that went 26-3 in the regular season before again falling short to Hope Christian, losing 51-48 in the 4A state title game.

Tierra Clichee and T'yana Harry joined Tanisha Begay, Kacy Begay, Secody and Dale on the varsity roster this year, and those six seniors each had a hand in helping second-seeded Shiprock finally capture that elusive state championship with a 47-42 win over No. 1 Hope.

"I'm thankful to my team and my coaches for bringing me this far and teaching me through the seasons," Dale said in a post-game press conference on Friday. "I learned a lot."

There was no shortage of drama on Friday when Shiprock finally reached the mountaintop. The Lady Chiefs trailed Hope by 12 points midway through the third quarter, but persevered. Members of the senior class were largely to thank for that, and they worked almost like an assembly line, with each girl using a different tool to piece the championship victory together.

Tanisha Begay scored a game-high 22 points and was Shiprock's only productive player on offense early in the game. Dale hit the 3-pointer than put Shiprock ahead for good with one minute and seven seconds remaining in the contest. Clichee stole passes on back-to-back Hope Christian possessions with less than a minute to go. And Secody was as clutch as it gets in sealing the victory, going six for six from the free-throw line inside the game's final minute.

The senior class also had a championship year on the practice floor and in the class room, according to fifth-year coach Larenson Henderson, and that prepared the group for the moment on Friday.

"They came every day in practice and put in the work everyday," Henderson said. "You can't complain about that. I think practice is very important, and if the seniors are leading that way, and above a 3.0 (grade point average)? You can't ask for more than that. I'm just really proud of them."

Shiprock's journey to a state title was eerily similar to Tohatchi's, which earned the 3A state championship a few hours before Shiprock did on the same court. The Lady Cougars, seeded No. 3, also trailed a No. 1 seed for much of the game before snatching the lead from Eunice late in the fourth quarter and holding it until the end.

From left, Shiprock seniors Tierra Clichee, Tanisha Begay and Kacy Begay pose with the 4A state championship trophy on Friday at The Pit in Albuquerque.

Tohatchi, a town located near the border of the Navajo Nation, had never won a state title until Friday, while Shiprock won its first in 15 years. A large chunk of Tohatchi fans who traveled to Albuquerque for the 3A state title game stayed to cheer on the Lady Chieftains.

After the win, Tanisha Begay said the support she and her fellow seniors received from the Navajo Nation fueled them over the years, and Friday's electric atmosphere gave the Lady Chieftains the drive needed to bring a title home to Shiprock.

"Fans from everywhere, even from Tohatchi. I noticed that they stayed for the game," Tanisha Begay said. "Just knowing that your community, that your hometown and your neighbors were there to support you because they believed in you. We're just so thankful to have a crowd like that."

Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.