Members of the 2020 CIF-San Diego Section Division IV Championship Calexico High School boys’ varsity basketball squad reunited for a long-delayed championship ring ceremony at newly renovated Circle Drive outside Calexico High on Friday afternoon, Nov. 13. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO
CALEXICO — After their much-deserved victory lap was cut short in March by the pandemic, members of the 2020 CIF-San Diego Section Division IV Championship Calexico High School boys’ varsity basketball squad reunited for a long-delayed championship ring ceremony at the campus.
Current teammates, several senior squad members who graduated in June, and their parents all took part in a socially distanced ceremony at newly renovated Circle Drive outside Calexico High on Friday afternoon, Nov. 13.
“All these years I’ve been playing basketball, and to finally accomplish what I’ve been striving for all of these years felt like a dream come true,” graduated senior Armando Ramirez said during the ceremony.
Ramirez was among 13 fellow varsity players invited to return to the high school to participate in a pandemically safe event held by the Calexico Unified School District.
With a 27-4 record, the team’s dedication and success last season led the squad to become Imperial Valley League champions and earned it the opportunity to reach the CIF-San Diego Section Division IV playoffs in February, where the team ultimately secured the boys’ basketball program it’s first-ever CIF title.
The Bulldogs took home the crown with a 70-57 victory over El Capitan High School in San Diego on Feb. 28.
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs would go on to make a first-round exit from the CIF state tournament, losing 81-65 to San Diego’s University City on March 3, but the team brought glory to Calexico and made its mark in the record books.
The best a Bulldogs boys’ varsity squad had ever done in CIF was a third-place sectional finish in 1963, and the team had not won a league championship since 1996.
“It feels good to come back,” Ramirez said of collecting his championship ring. “For us to be celebrating this together is something we always wanted to do.”
Before the school district could carry out plans to celebrate the team’s historic win with a parade through the city, strict safety measures were enacted to combat the spread of the coronavirus just weeks following the win. Physical classes were ended, and distance learning was implemented. Any kind of school-related get-togethers were cancelled.
“We are happy and excited to finally bring closure to this big achievement,” Calexico High Principal Gabrielle Williams-Ballesteros said. “It was a rollercoaster of emotions during each game, but now that the season is over, we are very proud of them.”
The ceremony was held in the school’s circle driveway with each player directed to drive up to the front of the school where they could pick up their individual gift bag, which included their CIF ring, their letterman patch and some treats.
“We are lucky to have a great group of kids,” said head coach Hugo Estrada, who was recently named Imperial Valley League Boys’ Basketball Coach of the Year.
Looking back at the team’s standout season, Estrada said a combination of factors, from planning to work ethic, helped bring the championship home.
“I think the support from the community, school administration, and the parents were a huge part of it,” he added.
Parents and guests of the players were also welcomed to attend. However, they were asked to remain in their cars for the duration of the ceremony, per Imperial County Department of Public Health guidelines.
“It was a very rewarding experience to have that type of team and that type of family environment that we created,” Estrada said. “They were hard working, they believed in what we had to say as coaches, and they never complained or made excuses.”
For many of the players, the camaraderie and support that was formed by the team was made possible through the guidance of Estrada and assistant coaches Tyler Gentry, Franco Nuñez and Juan Rodriguez.
“We were like brothers and our coaches were like our dads. If we needed help, they’d help us,” Mathew Piña, graduated senior and the team’s former point guard, said. “They were always, always there every step of the way.”
Although his time at Calexico High has come to an end, Piña was happy to be able to recall his time with his team and their journey to winning CIF.
“It meant the world to me to be able to do this, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” Piña said. “I would say this was a highlight of my high school year; it was something I’ll never forget.”
For those varsity players still attending Calexico High, the ring ceremony was a time to reflect on their amazing team and look toward a future in which they hope to defend their CIF Division IV title.
“I’m going to miss the seniors for sure,” said junior Aaron Tabarez, the team’s starting shooting guard. “I miss their presence at practice and games.”
Aaron is among the current varsity basketball players looking to return to the court once the distancing measures are lifted.
“I’m planning on repeating everything and coming back stronger than last year,” Aaron said. “We are always practicing and trying to get better each day, waiting for our season to come back around so we can get back to it.”
Thankfully for Aaron, one teammate is never too far to practice with, given that his younger brother, Andres, is the varsity team’s alternate shooting guard. Currently attending Calexico High as a sophomore, Andres was excited to be able to play the historic game as a freshman.
“It was exciting to see how all the older players played and how well they handled the pressure with all the crowd and everything,” Andres said. “I always wondered how it felt to get a ring and being able to finally do it and wear it is awesome and a blessing.”
Andres and the rest of the incoming boys’ varsity basketball team is looking to not only return to the court, but to bring home a second CIF championship for the Bulldogs’ basketball program. The team’s CIF victory marks the sixth time an athletic squad has won a CIF championship in more than 100 years of the school’s history, according to the district.
“We have a lot of talent to work with and a good group of kids coming back,” head coach Estrada said. “These kinds of things don’t happen often, so we try to enjoy it, and when the time comes for us to be back on the court, we are going to work as hard as possible.”