The pandemic took their coaches, but not their dream

They had suffered an unimaginable loss. Could the Lady Trojans pull off an unprecedented win?

The Lady Trojans pray before the quarterfinals game in Clayton, N.M.
The Lady Trojans pray before the quarterfinals game in Clayton, N.M.

TIERRA AMARILLA, N.M. — The Mesa Vista Lady Trojans had ridden their black-and-gold bus for nearly two hours, past snow-smudged hills and red-rock cliffs, to play their main rivals. Over 32 minutes of basketball, the girls had been outpassed and outrun and outscored by the Escalante Lobos. They lost by 40 points.

“We gotta get out of this funk,” Jesse Boies, a cross-country coach who had only recently become head of varsity girls’ basketball, told the teens gathered in a circle on a gym floor, some still catching their breath behind face masks. “We are good, ladies! This team right here is legit!”

It wasn’t just a pep talk: No one expected the team to do well this year; it hadn’t in years. But the Lady Trojans had roared into the season with seven straight wins. They won a local tournament in December. Now, with a record of 13-5, they were still contenders for the state playoffs.

Unmentioned this early February evening was the tragedy that had placed Boies before them — a covid-19 tsunami that was keeping them in online school, canceled recent games and, most devastating of all, had taken the lives of their beloved coaches just two months before.

Those men, the father-and-son duo of Leonard Torrez Jr., 37, and Leonard Torrez Sr., 58, were not just community fixtures known for their high basketball IQ. They were also the father and grandfather of two Lady Trojans. In mid-January, they died within hours of each other of complications from covid. During the Escalante game, their desk nameplates sat on two empty courtside seats.

Boies, the father of the starting point guard and best friend of head coach Torrez Jr., had not hesitated when Mesa Vista’s athletic director asked him to step in when the Torrezes fell ill. Now the job was permanent, and Boies’s goal was the same as theirs: Take an underdog team to the state tournament in March — maybe all the way.

The coronavirus wave was starting to recede. In-person school would resume in a few days. But the team was still navigating tragedy, and at this moment, any trophy felt distant.

“Our energy has just dropped,” Anna Peña, 16, a team captain, said after the players scattered.

“A lot of the girls, they don’t get as excited as when he was here,” Amarissa Quintana, 17, another captain, said of Torrez Jr., who was known as Leonard.

Boies, upbeat and broad-shouldered, understood. He was grieving, too. He and Leonard used to trade texts about their girls’ games from dawn until well past dark.

“I’m tough for the team. I’m tough for the family,” Boies said. “But it’s so surreal. I still feel like I’m going to talk to Leonard.”

The Mesa Vista school district — a single pre-K-12 campus of about 240 students — sits among gnarled junipers off a road marked by cow-crossing signs. Down the hill is Ojo Caliente, a fleck of a town with a post office, two cafes and a spa with hot springs used by generations of Pueblo people before being named by 16th-century Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.

Students, many of whose parents work in ranching or at Los Alamos National Laboratory, ride the bus for as long as an hour to get to school. Drug use is a scourge in the region. Basketball is an outlet.

“In Texas, they have football and Friday night lights. Here in northern New Mexico, people live for high school basketball, especially in the smaller communities,” Boies said. “From October till March, it’s nothing but basketball every night, every weekend.”

Leonard was a star Mesa Vista player two decades ago. In his day, people lined up for tickets. His wife, Renee Torrez, remembers being unable to hear her fellow cheerleaders shout over the roar of the crowd. Her graduating class had more than 60 students.

But Mesa Vista’s enrollment had dwindled, as had its reputation as a powerhouse. Today, with fewer than 100 high-schoolers, Mesa Vista qualifies for the smallest sports division, 1A, but chooses to play against slightly larger schools, in 2A. It no longer has a cheer squad. But this year, finally, it had a winning team in the Lady Trojans.

New Mexico’s vaccination rate, including in this region, is higher than that of most states. Even so, covid swamped hospitals at the end of 2021, when most cases were still caused by the more severe delta variant. The wave created “a huge sense of disruption and confusion,” said Lauren Reichelt, director of health and human services for Rio Arriba County, where many people have preexisting conditions.

But the Torrezes were not among them, family members said. Both men spent afternoons running up and down a basketball court. They sold wood that they split themselves. Neither drank nor smoked. And they had been vaccinated but were not yet due for boosters — a step the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in January was key to preventing hospitalization.

Torrez Sr., who went by Leo, was in bed with covid on Dec. 18, when the varsity girls won the tournament in nearby Pojoaque. Leonard was thrilled to go home and show his dad the trophy, Renee said. But he, too, began to feel unwell that day. That championship was the last game he coached.

Before that, it was hard to tell where the team ended and the Torrezes began.

Leonard and Renee’s four daughters started school in Española, closer to their home. But the Torrezes dreamed of transferring the girls to Mesa Vista — to “rep the black and gold," Renee said. They did so in 2019, and when Leonard became the basketball coach, he chose his dad as his assistant. They had coached together for years.

Kylie, the eldest Torrez girl at 16 and a defensive specialist on the court, had worn No. 34 — her dad’s high school number — since joining her first basketball team as a small child. Jaslene, 14, wore its inversion: 43. They both loved basketball ― the intensity, the toughness it required. And they loved Mesa Vista. “It’s smaller here. We’re more of a family,” Kylie said.

As a teenager, their grandmother, Roberta Torrez, was manager of Mesa Vista boys’ team on which her future husband, Leo, was a standout. These days, at 55, she sat in the bleachers each game, keeping the score book. The family’s custom apparel shop, which Renee ran, printed the team’s warm-up gear.

As coaches in Española, Leonard and Boies cultivated an easygoing rivalry. But in 2021, Leonard persuaded Boies’s daughter, sophomore Bella Boies, to transfer to Mesa Vista.

“We had plans, him and I,” Jesse Boies said. “We were going to build a dynasty, all the way down to the fifth-graders.”

The Mesa Vista girls are small — the tallest is 5-foot-9. They are young, with just two juniors and no seniors. But Leonard — who leased a gym during coronavirus shutdowns so his daughters could practice — began working them hard, pushing what he called a fast-paced northern New Mexico style of play: “Controlled chaos,” as he described it to the Rio Grande Sun, the local paper.

In the team’s first game under his leadership, in April 2021, the girls scored 72 points, more than the Lady Trojans had in nearly a decade, according to the Sun. In the summer, they practiced daily and competed in tournaments around the region.

Leonard “found ways to develop systems and get the most out of everyone,” said Ari Levin, a sports reporter for the Sun. “He definitely brought back that up-tempo style.”

Little by little, home game crowds grew.

“I think everyone was really just tired of being bottom of the barrel,” Renee said. “These girls were the talk of the town. Everyone wanted to come and see what all the buzz was about.”

The Torrez family has lived for decades on a rural stretch with views of snow-capped mountains. When Leonard graduated from Mesa Vista, he bought a trailer home and parked it next door to his parents.’ Renee, just 16, moved in with him.

The families — along with Leonard’s sister, who lived in another house on the property — ate breakfast and dinner together every night. They took road trips together, making sure any vacation rental had a basketball hoop.

Leonard was an avid reader and ’80s music fan, gregarious and romantic. He and Renee met 21 years ago, when he, a cocky athlete, saw Renee exit a Mesa Vista bathroom and stuttered her name.

And though while coaching he yelled at his daughters and their teammates to the point that he’d lose his voice, Leonard was a proud, doting father, Renee said.

“Everybody was always asking us, are you guys gonna try for a boy?” Renee said. “And he’d tell them, ‘I’m trying for all girls. What are you talking about?’”

Leonard was uncannily close to his father, an introvert who had kept llamas as pets and always brought mandarin oranges for halftime snacks. For 18 years, they commuted together to Los Alamos, where both worked in security. For the past seven, the pair had run a towing company together. Both were lectors at church — Leo in Spanish, Leonard in English.

The whole family contracted covid-19 in mid-December, the adults so seriously that all required supplemental oxygen. An ambulance came for Leo on Christmas morning, after he passed out. An hour later, a second ambulance took away Leonard.

Kylie and Jaslene kept playing while they were hospitalized, calling home during timeouts and halftimes for updates on their dad and grandpa’s health. “We knew that they would have wanted us to play,” Jaslene said.

Eventually, Leo’s kidneys began to fail, and he was transferred to an Albuquerque hospital. Just before Leonard was intubated on Dec. 28, he assured Renee he would “fight.” He told his girls to do the same, saying he’d cheer them on again from the courtside or the sky. “We got this, hermano,” he texted Boies, using the Spanish word for brother, the name they always called each other.

Roberta watched Leo take his last breath over FaceTime on the afternoon of Jan. 12. Leonard died in Renee’s arms less than 10 hours later. She called home with the awful news, Jaslene remembers, at 1:05 a.m.

“I felt it in my chest. I couldn’t breathe,” Jaslene said. “It just felt so heavy, like I had a thousand pounds on my chest.”

One month later, Roberta was sitting on her couch, the one perpendicular to Leo’s, in the cozy living room where they’d spent countless evenings watching “Grey’s Anatomy.” Outside was the tow truck where she sometimes still sensed him sitting. On a side table was a framed letter from the Los Alamos director, praising Leo and Leonard’s “work protecting special nuclear material, classified material, and … employees” and the “important life lessons” they taught local youths.

Maybe, Roberta wondered, something genetic made them both susceptible to the coronavirus.

“I wonder, if Junior would have made it, how would he have been without his dad or vice versa? Because I know deep down inside my heart, Leo wouldn’t have been able to make it without his son,” Roberta said, sobbing. “But at the same time, it’s like, why? I question and I ask, ‘Why did you take both of them?’”

Renee, who had been keeping it together in front of her girls — “four very important sets of eyes watching me,” as she put it — listened and wept quietly into her hands.

The deaths hit hard well beyond Mesa Vista. Opposing teams staged several tributes to the Torrezes before games in late January, until Mesa Vista asked them to stop — players were becoming too emotional, said Richard Apodaca, the district principal and boys’ varsity coach.

“It’s a small, rural area, so everyone knew them,” Apodaca said. “It’s amplified just what covid is, and how it impacts schools, and how it impacts communities.”

As February unfolded in wins and a few losses for the Lady Trojans, it became clear they would be among the 16 teams to make it to state. More wins meant a higher seed and the advantage of hosting their first game.

Boies avoided bringing up the Torrezes with the girls. He saw that doing so made their eyes cloud, and he didn’t want any distractions.

“Kylie, she’s kind of feeling it a little more now,” Boies said at the beginning of March. “She’s playing through it, and she’s playing hard. But she tells me that it finally hit her, and she misses them a lot more now.”

Tana Lopez, a shy 5-foot-4 freshman who had become the team’s top scorer, also struggled. She had a deep connection with Leonard, her coach since fifth grade.

“We just got a bond — like, irreplaceable,” she said.

After the Escalante loss, Tana hugged Roberta and broke down in tears.

“She said, ‘I miss the boys so much, I miss Leonard so much.’ She said, ‘I don’t even want to play for anybody but for Leonard,’” Roberta said. “I said, ‘Honey, Leonard wouldn’t want you to quit, baby.’”

The Lady Trojans finished the season 6-4 in their district and 19-9 overall — 16 more victories than in the previous season. They had made state — “Leonard’s dream,” Boies said, adding: “We’ve kind of found ourselves again.” But they were seeded No. 10. They would start with an away game.

The Trojan Express rolled into the parking lot at Santa Rosa High School before dusk on March 4, down the street from shuttered storefronts on historic Route 66. In the hallway outside the gym, a poster reading “Covid Changed Everything” advertised a mental health hotline. In the gym, a sign said masks had become optional as of Feb. 17.

“We asked you guys an impossible task, what, three weeks ago? A month ago? We gotta grow up fast,” Boies was telling the team in a locker room, where Kylie and Jaslene sat side by side. “We grew up. We’re ready. You girls are ready.”

As before every game, the team huddled to say the Lord’s Prayer. And as before every game, they chanted what had become their mantra: “One! Two! Three! Torrez strong!”

The Santa Rosa Lions were the No. 7 seed, they were taller and they had beaten Mesa Vista in January, two days after the coaches’ burials.

But on this night, Mesa Vista held them off for nearly the entire game, despite what Boies would later call “too many stupid turnovers.” The Lady Trojans were up six at halftime. They finished on top, 64-57.

The girls were giddy in the locker room, beaming as Boies praised standout players and reminded them what they had just done: Mesa Vista girls had twice before made the state tournament. But they’d never made it past the first round.

“Best eight! Best eight! Hey, you guys made history tonight, you know that, right?” Boies said, bouncing as he spoke. “You guys made Mesa Vista history!”

The next round was another away game — four hours away, in the sprawling prairie a few miles west of the Texas border. A water tower above town told visitors whose territory this was: the Clayton Yellowjackets'.

The Lady Trojans had defeated the Yellowjackets in a preseason scrimmage. And though Clayton was the No. 2 seed, it had beaten the No. 15 seed in the first round by only five points.

Boies bounded into the school with nervous energy, talking of the “Cinderella story” that would continue that night. In the gym, Clayton cheerleaders waved shiny pompoms while a Yellowjacket mascot sashayed to Katy Perry.

The Clayton players, a few of whom approached 6 feet, mostly towered over Mesa Vista. But they were slower, and by halftime, Mesa Vista was ahead by four. Winning this, Boies reminded the Lady Trojans, would take them to the Final Four in Albuquerque. The team seemed light — confident — as it headed back to the gym.

But back on the court, the mood shifted. They looked tired. Clayton players easily intercepted passes Bella Boies lobbed far above her head. Kylie boxed in the player she was guarding, just as her dad had taught her, but missed her shots.

Renee, in the bleachers, exhaled loudly. “You can dribble just like anybody else, Kylie, come on!” Roberta shouted.

Mesa Vista’s lead slipped away fast in the fourth quarter. In the final seconds, as Clayton sank two free throws to win 51-43, Jesse hugged Amarissa Quintana, her head buried in his shoulder.

In the locker room, tears streamed down some players’ cheeks. Anna Peña looked despondent. Tana Lopez, holding a Gatorade bottle, gazed into the distance.

Boies, visibly spent, reminded them that they had thundered past expectations. They’re so young, he told them. They had another year together, he said.

And now that it was all over, he brought up Leonard and Leo.

“Coach Torrezes would be so proud of you girls,” Boies said. “I wish we’d been the Cinderella team. But hey — next year we’ll be the championship team.”

Kylie and Jaslene laughed when asked two days later what their dad and grandpa would have thought about the Clayton game. Leo, Jaslene said, would have said Mesa Vista did great, despite the odds against them. Leonard would have had more complicated opinions.

“It got to our heads, and we just kind of gave up,” Jaslene said. “He would have said that it’s all just a mental game, and we need to get it back together.” He also might have switched up the defense sooner, she added.

The girls had just ordered tacos and enchiladas with their mom, grandma, aunt, sisters and boyfriends at La Cocina, a family favorite in Española. It was spring break, and they’d spent the day relaxing at home. Renee, still dealing with the overwhelming red tape that follows death, had visited the vital records office in Santa Fe.

“I’m proud of the season we had,” Kylie said. “No one expected us to make it that far.”

Roberta looked at photos on her phone — the miniature horse Leo had bought the girls; the enormous bull elk Kylie had bagged with her dad last fall. A text from Boies popped up.

“He checks on us about every other day,” Renee said. Boies was so close to Leonard, she said, and she thinks he still needs to feel close to the family.

When the food arrived, Roberta led everyone in prayer. “We dedicate this dinner to grandpa and Leonard,” she finished. “May they rest in peace.”

Two days later in Albuquerque, the family would watch Clayton beat Escalante, the No. 1 seed, for the state championship. In a couple of weeks, Kylie and Jaslene would don uniforms again, for track.

And when summer came, they would be back on the basketball court with Boies and their teammates, preparing to try again.