EPAC. The two-syllable, phonetically-spelled four-letter word that’s not really a word is known across southeastern New Mexico as the Eastern Plains Athletic Conference basketball tournament.
But a joke could be made that a secondary spelling could be, “Everybody’s Practically A Cousin,” as quite a few family trees could be compiled just through the years of EPAC rosters.
Another generation of high school players became EPAC veterans this week at Melrose High and Eastern New Mexico University, with 10 schools fielding boys and girls teams in the pair of five-day, tournament.
They were led, in some instances, by other EPAC veterans and cheered on by others — though the players would more likely use the terms, “Coach,” “Mom” and, “Dad.” Sometimes, they’re also called “Grandpa.”
The tournament has been played on the boys side since 1958, and since 1976 for the girls, and the participants have always felt like winning EPAC mattered.
“You wanted to win EPAC, district, regionals and state,” said Johnny Lieb, a 1961 Elida graduate and five-time EPAC participant with the Tigers.
Lezlie Privett, a 1992 Dora High graduate, also viewed the tournament that now runs the gamut of Class 2A, 1A and B teams as a postseason before the district season.
“That was the east side of the state championship,” said Privett. “Basically, it was a preparation for the state championship. If you won EPAC, you had the confidence to win state. I think if you made the championship game, period, it was a pretty good feeling.”
Privett was a senior on the 1992 Dora squad under Mike Majors — who coached top-seeded Tatum in this year’s tournament — that claimed both the EPAC and the state basketball championship. There have been 26 occasions where the EPAC tournament winner lifted the state championship trophy two months later, and another 16 times where the EPAC champ finished as state runnerup.
Privett, and her father, Tom Clark — a three-time EPAC participant himself in the early 60s — both recall a different game growing up than the one with Lezlie’s children, freshman Dalton Privett and junior Dylan Privett.
“It wasn’t nearly as fast-paced as boys basketball,” Privett said while watching Dora’s 71-31 win over San Jon on Wednesday. “It didn’t seem nearly so rough then ... but of course, I’m watching my kid.”
Clark — part of Dora’s 1965 EPAC champion and two other teams he said were competitive — said the basketball he and his classmates played was one of ball control, while today’s game lends itself to athletic ability and physical defense. He said players attempting “Jordan” shots would have been on the bench, but so would the defenders trying to stop them.
“It’s a much rougher game than it ever was,” said Clark. “If they did those same things back then, they’d all be fouled out. We had one game in my junior year, not in EPAC, against Texico. We finished with four players, they finished with three.”
Clark, who had many children play in EPAC, jokes that if he could do it all over, he’d skip straight to grandchildren because you can have all of the same experiences as children — but you can send them home if you get tired of them. Be it child or grandchild, he gives the same pre-game advice.
“It’s nearly as fun as playing,” Clark said of watching offspring and grandchildren play. “I truly love watching the games, but I don’t dwell on it. With our kids, if you went out there and had fun, it was a successful game.”
Fun or not, there’s still a tournament to be won. Following Elida’s 50-49 loss to Floyd, one which saw the Tigers rally in the fourth quarter but have three potential go-ahead shots rim out in the last 45 seconds, three generations of Elida players dealt with some frustration — Lieb, daughter Leslie Creighton and granddaughter Kenzee Creighton.
But there was some relief in knowing the Tigers would play another day. When Leslie played for Elida in the 1983 through 1987 EPAC tournaments, you had to win to stay in.
“If wasn’t a three games kind of deal; you lose and you’re done, so it was very competitive,” Creighton said. “ It goes quickly. Sometimes we’d see through most of it because we were so competitive.”
Kenzee, making her way through a crowded lobby, said she always got to see older siblings play the tournament, and looked forward to when she would do the same thing.
“It’s kind of cool in a way,” said Kenzee, “knowing that everybody played” on the same court, from sibling to parent to grandparent.
With the increased size of the tournament comes easier ways to follow it, thanks to technology. The MHS main gym equipped a pair of flat-panel televisions that showed a broadcast of each court for fans who didn’t want to walk through the rain. And if you decide to call it a night, results are available online if you haven’t already gotten a text message update from a friend.
But different challenges are created, as Leslie Creighton can attest. She’s been given the job of tracking the team’s statistics with an iPad application, and she’s sometimes too busy tracking shots or rebounds to get overly emotional about the game.
Was that a conscious decision by coaches?
“I’ve sometimes wondered that myself,” Creighton said with a smile.