Fri Jul 31st, 2020
Special to the Drum
Categories: Sports, Sports, Volleyball
Tags: Alamogordo (N.M.) High Schoo, Amy Barry, CHSAA Class 2A-Region VII Tournament, Ernestine Baca, joel priest, Kelley Bickham, Leo Garand, Melanie Seibel, Shasta Pontine, Thad Cano, Tiger Pit, Tracy Strohl, Volleycat
Longtime skipper to aid rebuilding Alamogordo
During a recent preseason phone interview, when asked to recall his initial high-school volleyball coaching gig, Thad Cano informed this writer he’d e-mail a picture showing himself with his first-ever charges.
“You’re going to flip out, at how young and skinny I was!” he said jokingly.
He was right.
But to be fair, three decades in any occupation probably would change anyone’s appearance.
Cano’s signature grin, however, hasn’t – which doesn’t surprise Ernestine Baca, under whom in 1991 he first cut his teeth at Alamogordo (N.M.) High School, in the slightest.
“He always had a pleasant smile when dealing with students,” she recalled. “I met Thaddeus as he was an employee [of AHS] as a security guard … related well with students on campus.”
“Thaddeus was the type of individual you would want on your volleyball staff.”
A physical-education professor at New Mexico State University-Alamogordo and faculty member since ’97 – when she arrived after teaching P.E. at Alamogordo High since ’86 – Dr. Baca would certainly know something about success stemming from surrounding oneself with positive-thinking people.
And during recent months, such a person was sought to help re-energize AHS’ famed Tiger Pit following a 2019 in which the Lady Tiger varsity – an NMAA Class 4A State Champion program in 1979 with Baca in uniform and also State Runner-up in ’80 – finished a reported 2-19 overall and 1-11 in District 3-5A play.
Not long after defeats dealt by Kremmling West Grand and Ault Highland in the WG-hosted CHSAA Class 2A-Region VII Tournament left Ignacio standing a finalized 13-12 – a five-win improvement over 2018’s 8-15 mark – in ’19, a conversation with his mother left Cano all but convinced a homecoming was in order.
“I had talked to my mom … to come down for Thanksgiving, and I was like, ‘What do you think of me moving back?’ She was like, ‘That would be good,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Time to do it,’ and started getting everything all lined up.”
Though not offered a job leading AHS’ first team, hoping to return no fewer than seven now-seniors (Alamogordo graduated just four), the chance to work under – and perhaps re-mentor – a former player, appearing in the aforementioned photo, proved just too unique to pass up.
“Would have [relocated] sooner but with COVID we ended up getting locked down, couldn’t do anything for … two months, basically,” he said, speaking on a day when the predicted temperature in Alamogordo approached 107 degrees Fahrenheit. “When they reopened everything, I made the transition and notified everybody.”
That included IHS Athletic/Activities Director Leo Garand, as well as his 2019 assistant coaches whom he’d collectively praised at the team’s end-of-year awards banquet:
“I do want to thank all my coaching staff – Amy Barry, Tracy Strohl, Shasta Pontine, Melanie Seibel – because without those coaches right there, I couldn’t have done it,” he stated. “They made my life easy; they stepped into roles throughout the season at different key times to help the teams.”
“We had a lot of adversity and we got through that adversity,” continued Cano, 76-106 overall as Ignacio’s varsity boss since 2012. “I definitely appreciate their help and want to thank them for that. This season was fun.”
“We would like to thank Coach Cano for everything you’ve done for us as coaches, and for all of our girls,” Pontine said later in the evening. “Really, you were the driving force on what makes this team great and what’s going to make this team great in the future.”
Again, such a declaration wouldn’t come as a surprise to Cano’s very first highest-up.
“As I took over as head coach from [Alamogordo’s] 1986 State Championship team, I was a huge believer that … good varsity teams need good feeder programs,” said Baca, who supplanted Carmen Ross prior to the ’87 season and who would remain varsity director until leaving for NMSU-A. “Thaddeus … worked well teaching competitive volleyball to these athletes at an early age.”
“After freshman practice, Thaddeus would take time to come work with our varsity to assist in competitive drills,” she continued. “Any accomplished … head coach will always need a coach with this specific quality.”
And at Alamogordo, that ‘head coach’ will be second-year leader Kelley Bickham.
A 1994 graduate of AHS, Bickham had played some junior-varsity ball during the ’91 season for JV coach Pat Devine while Cano – offered the role for 2020 – instructed the freshman squad as Baca oversaw all goings-on.
Bickham was later named an Honorable Mention All-4A outside hitter following her senior-year ’93 efforts, and would continue her student-athlete days at Garden City (Kan.) C.C. as a track-and-field throwing talent, prior to lettering at NCAA Division I University of Arkansas in ’97 and ’98.
“I had one meeting – before they locked down [due to COVID-19 precautions] the state – with Kelley. Went to a Taco Bell there, sat and chit-chatted,” said Cano, who first arrived at Ignacio in 2009 from 3A Pagosa Springs, and served under varsity predecessor Bayli Stillwell. “So she and I have just been talking on the phone … . She wants me to coach for her, and I said I would so … this is really coming full-circle!”
“I’ll be coaching where I first started!”
“Thaddeus had this quality and love to talk and play volleyball all day with me and everyone else,” Baca said. “His work ethic and desire for success would trickle down to his athletes.”
“A successful volleyball team is a team that has respect between the athletes and a head coach,” she noted. “Yes, winning State … is every head coach’s dream, but having your athletes succeed and grow as an individual and learn to be a team member is more rewarding. Thaddeus always believed in his athletes, win or lose.”
“I love volleyball,” said Cano, “working with student-athletes, trying to guide them to achieve great things.”
“He deserves all the respect and recognition he has earned in high-school and club volleyball,” Baca said. “When I speak of Thaddeus’ accomplishments to people, I have [so] much pride for knowing him in the beginning.”
DID YOU KNOW
When Cano first became a high-school coach in 1991 (he’d remain at Alamogordo up through the ’96 grind, according to Baca), all four New Mexico Activities Association State Volleyball Championship matches – there were only four classifications then (five exist currently, and there were six from 2014-17) – were decided by fifth-game tiebreakers.
To date, 1991 marks the only year this has happened in NMAA-sanctioned action.
FORMER ’CAT APPROVED
Confirmed by both Cano and Garand in separate messages, former Volleycat Alex Benzie (née Forsythe) has been selected to take over for Cano. Having played her final prep volleyball during the 2016 season, Cano noted the former team captain’s youthful eagerness should mix well with her general knowledge.
“I talked to Shasta, talked to Leo, and they set up the interview with her and now she’s the new head coach for Ignacio,” said Cano. “I was like, ‘Alex, you know this is going to take tons of time. I know you have your own business … ’ And she says, ‘That’s what I got my own business for! So this way I could do what I want!’ She let me know up front … she was a hundred percent committed, and they hired her. I was so happy.”
Benzie was unable to be reached by press time.
“They’d put out a thing when nobody had applied for the position,” Cano recalled. “And I had Shasta call me: ‘Thad, do you know anybody?’ So then I called Leo, said, ‘Do you want me to see what I can find?’ He said, ‘If you don’t mind!’ So I’d actually been helping him through the process; I was like, ‘If I’m going to get involved, it has to be somebody that I know can do a good job.’”