By Eric Butler: Freedom New Mexico
Following the first game of the Plateau Wireless Classic in Clovis, members of both teams gathered for a single group photo. It was an act reminiscent of competitions where squads come from far-off foreign lands and, after making the voyage, even the hosts want a souvenir of their trip.
As far as the Lathrop Malemutes are concerned, that isn’t all that far from the truth.
Yes, Alaska is part of the United States, but Fairbanks is a long, long way from Clovis.
As the crow flies, the two comparable-sized cities are 2,793 miles from each other. But the trip was far more circuitous than that for the Fairbanks Lathrop team.
The eight Malemutes players, along with coaches and one parent, boarded an Alaska Air flight at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve. After flying to Seattle and switching to American Airlines, the contingent then took a flight to Dallas. Connecting with yet another plane, the team finally arrived in Albuquerque at 5:24 p.m. on Christmas Day.
With the help of a local car dealership, Clovis High School Athletic Director Brian Stacy arranged to have the Lathrop squad picked up and driven to eastern New Mexico.
For the Fairbanks residents, who insist that the moister conditions made New Mexico actually feel colder than the sub-zero temperatures they’re used to, a snowstorm between Moriarty and Santa Rosa was quite a shock.
“I guess the surprising part is that we thought we were leaving the snow for good weather. Then we show up here and it’s snowing,” said Malemutes’ Head Coach David Stewart said. “Everybody thinks that, coming from Alaska, it won’t be cold here for us. But it’s a dry cold (in Fairbanks) as opposed to this.”
“What we were told was that it would be 89 (degrees) and we would get a suntan. Everybody thought it would be,” said Lathrop junior Monica West.
According to Stacy, the ground-bound caravan carrying the team had to move as slow as 25 mph at times on I-40 as it made its way through the snowy weather. The Malemutes finally arrived in Clovis and ate dinner at 9:45 p.m. — almost 23 hours after the trek began.
The idea for coming to the Clovis tournament originated with a simple desire to play in the “lower 48” states.
“This is our first time out of state in a couple of years. This is my first time and I’m a junior. Our assistant coach, Thomas (Sullivan), he is from New Mexico, and he presented us with the idea last year,” said Lathrop’s Allysha Lewis, whose father traveled from El Paso so he could see her play.
“I helped raise money so we could go, because I really wanted our team to come out of state,” she added.
Sullivan, no longer at the school this season, had a sister who was an assistant coach at Del Norte in Albuquerque. She, said Stewart recommended the Clovis holiday tournament.
Each team member had to raise $800 to make the trip. One parent, Monica West’s mom, also accompanied the group.
On Thursday morning, when the Malemutes got up to play Highland High in a 10 a.m. start at Rock Staubus gymnasium, the temperature back in Fairbanks was 22 degrees below zero on a day that would only have around four hours of daylight.
Although the team had all of Wednesday to recuperate from the trip, the players said they hadn’t just yet.
“Oh, we’re still not over it,” said West, whose grandparents also traveled from Colorado to see the tournament.
After falling to Highland High in the opening round, the teams planned to do more than just pose for a photo.
“I think we’re going to go out and eat with them,” said Highland Coach Jon Ingram after the game. “There could be some long-lasting friendships that come out of this.”
When the tournament ends, Stewart will take his troops back to Albuquerque on Sunday and immediately catch a flight. Though there won’t be time for a trip to one of the bigger malls there, Stewart says his players have been quite happy with the shopping opportunities in Clovis.
“The cars they got us are top of the line, the hotel is top of the line, so I can’t complain,” West concurred.