By Elizabeth Johnson
Photos by Shane Marshall & JDCHS junior Emily Pascua
The state championship game was not the kind of game that makes the fans in the crowd hold their breath. By the fourth quarter, the players and fans saw victory in their sights and when the final buzzer went off, the Juan Diego Catholic High School girls basketball team had made history.
Fans streamed down to the end of the court to celebrate with the players. There was a triumphant feeling in the air as, one by one, the members of the Soaring Eagle girls basketball team each cut off a piece of the net, celebrating the first 3A state championship for girls basketball in the history of the school. Smiles mingled with tears of joy on many of the players’ faces.
Despite adversity, Juan Diego had pulled off an undefeated season. Head coach Josh Archuleta had known all season that his team had potential, but as a first-year coach, he never expected to go 25-0.
“I couldn’t imagine a better first year,” Archuleta said. “They’re telling me I’ve gotta retire now, 25-0.”
The 2014-2015 girls basketball season was marked by one success after another on the court under the direction of Archuleta, in his first year on the bench. Senior Sarah Christiansen credits their winning season to him.
“He got us to play as a team,” Christiansen said.
Archuleta coached his team through the personal heartbreak of losing his mother, Juanita, midseason to her third battle with breast cancer. In turn, his players rallied around their coach, and supported him through his loss.
“My family and my friends were shocked that all the (players) were (at her funeral),” Archuleta said. “They were all in their uniform and they were all so reverent. I’m lucky to have them, and that’s how everybody in my family felt. You never want something like that to happen, but that really brought the whole team together.”
Archuleta is an only child, and a self-described “mama’s boy.”
“Even up to the very end, she went to all my games, so they just knew how much she meant to me,” Archuleta said.
Junior AnnMarie Nelson said Juanita Archuleta was an inspiration to her.
“We came up with the hashtag #JuanitaStrong, while she was still fighting (breast cancer),” Nelson said. “We all wrote it on our arms, to play for her. When she passed, we decided to get a shirt with the hashtag on it and it became like a slogan for her. To me, #JuanitaStrong is never giving up, to always fight through and to do it for her and to do it for Arch.”
Despite the adversity, it was a record-breaking season for the team, especially senior twins Monique and Dominique Mills. Monique broke the all-time school scoring record and Dominique set a new all-time rebound record. Monique is the seventh leading scorer in the state, finishing the season with 476 points, 25 of which she scored in Saturday’s game, and Dominique finished ninth with 435 points, 16 of which were scored in Saturday’s game.
Going into Saturday’s championship game against Morgan, Archuleta said the coaching staff and the team were nervous.
“You never want to play a team three times in a year, especially when you’ve beat them the two times before,” Archuleta said. “I’d never beaten a team the third time. If we’d beat them twice, we always lost to them the third time. I was just kind of nervous about that. We were still definitely confident. I trusted the kids.”
In the first quarter, the game was close, ending with a Soaring Eagle lead of just one point, but after ending the first half up 26-17, Juan Diego remained on top for the remainder of the game. With six minutes remaining, the margin was 27 points. It was then the players and coaches realized they were going to win.
“We took a timeout, we talked about it and that’s kind of when everybody just started smiling,” Archuleta said. “I told them to just enjoy the moment. It’s only going to happen once for those seniors.”
Because of the large lead, Archuleta put in some of the younger players, allowing them to have their moment on the court. The final score was Juan Diego 67, Morgan 47.
The Mills twins led the team with a combined 41 points, followed by Nelson with 10, Becca Curran with seven, Christiansen with six, Tara Dooley with two and Anna Ewoniuk with one.
The team had taken state. An excited mix of fans and players held each other and sang as Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played loudly through the speakers at the Maverik Center.
“I’m just crazy happy,” Christiansen said after the game.
“I’m speechless, but I’m just happy to be here and happy to be a Juan Diego Soaring Eagle,” Archuleta said.