Lady Coyotes blazed a trail
February 8, 2023
SAN JON - Fifty years ago this month, San Jon High School won the first New Mexico Activities Association championship in girls basketball, despite being one of the smallest school districts.
The Lady Coyotes' state title in 1973 came before the tournament was divided into enrollment classes, so the team typically faced bigger schools. San Jon beat them all en route to a 17-0 season and became trailblazers in the Title IX era that prohibited sex discrimination and opened more opportunities for girls in sports.
The 1973 San Jon team will be honored during the Class 1A girls basketball championship game on March 11 at The Pit in Albuquerque.
The Quay County Sun interviewed two members of that team, plus the statistician and unofficial assistant coach of the Lady Coyotes that year. Information also came from archived newspaper articles.
Though the NMAA announced its first state tournament for girls basketball for the 1972-73 season, the girls of San Jon had been played the sport for years before.
San Jon was known as a power in Amateur Athletic Union play before that, including capturing the state AAU title at Gallup in 1972.
The culture of San Jon Municipal Schools marinated in basketball largely because of Ed Lee. He already was a coaching legend after winning three straight state championships in boys basketball there during the early 1960s.
Lee, who also was the district's superintendent, then began coaching girls basketball in the fall of 1972.
"I was born in 1957, but we started watching Ed Lee basketball games immediately," Bethe Terry-Cunningham, a sophomore point guard during the girls championship season, said during a phone interview. "Whenever his teams went to the state tournament, the whole town went. It was a big, big deal."
Wes Runyan, a statistician and unofficial assistant coach for the 1972-73 San Jon team, said the girls there already had logged plenty of hardwood time before NMAA sanctioned the sport.
"Those girls had played basketball for many years before Title IX, at least since junior high and sometimes earlier," he said during a phone interview. "They played with each other and knew what they could do and couldn't do. They just worked together as a team; it wasn't one individual that made them special."
Lee also held additional incentive to coach San Jon girls basketball - two of his daughters, Anita and Terry, were on the team.
Janice Green, formerly known as Janice Paris, was a senior center on the 1972-73 squad. Now residing near Muleshoe, Texas, she expressed an admiration for Lee during a phone interview.
"Other than my father, no one ever had that kind of effect on me in my life," she said. "He was a super-good man besides being a good coach.
"During holidays, we didn't have practice when it was time for family," Green added. "If it was a family event, you weren't required to practice, and he wouldn't jerk you off the team for not showing up. That had a huge effect on me, that family was very important."
Terry-Cunningham said Lee was strict during workouts.
"In the gym, when you were practicing, if you had your back turned and you weren't paying attention, you got a basketball on the back of your head," she recalled. "I think he coached us the same way he coached the boys."
Green recalled a lot of wind sprints and other conditioning during workouts.
"We were in really good shape, and we usually outran our opponents," she said.
"We were fit. There were a lot of teams where you could tell those girls weren't fit," Terry-Cunningham said.
San Jon's good conditioning also set up Lee's style of play.
"He coached them just like he did the boys," Runyan said. "They'd fastbreak and run with the ball. There wasn't any standing around and eating up the clock."
Lee's approach played into Terry-Cunningham's wheelhouse.
"I was real fast," she said. "I was left-handed. I could get down there, steal the ball and make a left-handed layup all day long if the other team would let me."
"They'd play larger teams," Runyan recalled, "and they wouldn't get across halfcourt when San Jon would be making a layup on the other end."
The Lady Coyotes had a deep bench, with Lee playing as many as 12 players.
San Jon's regular season included area opponents such as Logan, Amistad, Grady, Dora, Fort Sumner, House, Floyd and Texico. Runyan said girls basketball was much more developed in eastern New Mexico.
"The district tournament was tougher than the state tournament," he said. "Albuquerque schools didn't play girls basketball but for a couple of years before the state tournament."
Green volunteered another reason the team had a magical season.
"Our parents were super-supportive," she said. "All the team's parents were always there for us, whatever we needed. I think that had a huge effect on us, too."
Before the state tournament in February 1973 at Eastern New Mexico University's Greyhound Arena in Portales, many observers - including Albuquerque Journal executive sports editor Ben Moffett - considered Reserve to be the favorite because of its 50-game win streak.
But Weed upset Reserve 45-41 in the quarterfinal round. Meanwhile, San Jon overwhelmed Dulce 59-19 in its quarterfinal.
In the semifinal, San Jon breezed by Des Moines 61-43 with Terry Lee's 27 points, setting up the championship against Texico, a team the Lady Coyotes already had beaten twice that season.
San Jon wasn't inclined to look past Texico. The Lady Coyotes once had a long winning streak in AAU play, and it was Texico that stopped it.
At the title game on Feb. 17, Runyan said just about everyone in San Jon was at Greyhound Arena - not that anyone would notice at the venue.
"Every resident of San Jon wouldn't have taken up very many seats," he said, laughing.
"It was way fun for us to be in a big gym like that," Terry-Cunningham said. "I'll never forget my assignment for that game. I was to stay on one particular girl - I don't remember who - and I wasn't to let her score, no matter what. He told me, 'Don't you worry about scoring; just make sure she doesn't score.'"
San Jon won 37-33 in overtime. The Lady Coyotes made it difficult on themselves by missing 15 of 20 free throws in the second half.
"We had a hard time winning it," Lee said after the game. "They played their game, and we didn't play ours."
But San Jon outrebounded Texico 67-33. Paris scored 11 points to lead the victors.
"Everybody was so excited," Terry-Cunningham said about the state title. "And (Lee) had to be thrilled; you could tell he was."
Lee soon moved on to take a position in Artesia.
Lee died in 2012 at age 82, but his memory lives on in San Jon. The high school's gymnasium is named after him.
San Jon for a while continued its excellence in girls basketball, winning state titles in 1987 and finishing runner-up in 1985.
In 1973, fewer than 50 schools in New Mexico offered girls basketball. The total now is almost 150.
Terry-Cunningham said she has noticed how much the skill levels of girls basketball have risen, especially outside shooting.
"With the advent of 3-point shooting, boy, that would have been fun to have that back then," she noted.
Terry-Cunningham went to South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, on a basketball scholarship. Her father initially wanted her to go to his alma mater, Texas A&M, but he reconsidered.
"He told me, 'That place isn't for you. They're not ready for girls basketball down there at all,'" she recalled.
Terry-Cunningham, who later had a daughter who played basketball, said she's well aware of Title IX's legacy because she was a beneficiary.
"Because of Title IX, I was able to get a college education without having my parents pay for it or having to get a job," she said.
Green didn't play basketball in college, but she said she still holds warm memories of San Jon's state championship during her senior year.
"It was just very special to me to be the first."