Michael Madrid and his San Jacinto-North women’s basketball team had dual motivations for making the NJCAA Tournament this season.
For Madrid, it’s a homecoming. He spent five seasons as an assistant to Steve Gomez at Lubbock Christian University, the NJCAA Championship host for the second year in a row. As for the team, the Gators came up with a social media hashtag this season — #588, because it’s 588 miles from their gym in Houston to the Rip Griffin Center.
San Jac’s gone 24-8 and will play the first game of the NJCAA Tournament at 10 a.m. Monday against Harford (28-3).
Making the tournament is a first for the Gators — and one of the first chances for a last hurrah. Just before the season started, the college announced it’s eliminating four sports after the 2017-18 school year to save money. The most shocking cut: San Jac’s tradition-rich men’s basketball program that’s produced four national championships and 18 NBA players.
“It was devastating,” Madrid, the Gators’ head coach, said Saturday. “It was absolutely devastating. Honestly, when I accepted the job, I thought, ‘This is where I’m going to retire.’”
Madrid, who coached at Estacado and Lubbock High before LCU, took the San Jac job 15 months before the school decided to drop his program. The Gators went 22-11 his first season and advanced to the Region XIV championship game, another first.
“Even when I took the job,” Madrid said, “I really felt like this could be one of the top-tier programs, not only in the region but also in the country because of the location, the resources, et cetera.”
San Jac officials announced their decision on Halloween, a day before the Gators’ season started. School administrators decided to let the four terminated teams play two more years so this year’s freshmen could complete their eligibility and graduate.
Still, it’ll be tricky to recruit players for the 2017-18 season: What high school graduate wants to go to a team that’ll be closing up shop after her freshman season? And the Gators got hit with a challenge this season.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” Madrid said. “We started the year off in preseason with a lot of energy and high expectations. They’re sort of hit by a truck, so to speak. That day that they were told was one of the hardest practices from an emotional standpoint, trying to get them to focus. But they’ve been a resilient group. If nothing else, they’ve really bonded.”
Madrid dismissed two players at mid-year, and the Gators started the New Year by running off 10 consecutive wins. They were on a five-game winning streak before losing to Kilgore in the Region XIV tournament semifinals.
“They’ve been fun,” Madrid said. “Now that they have this opportunity, they understand the magnitude of it. They understand no team in San Jac women’s history has ever made the national tournament. I think they’re thankful and looking for an opportunity to play on a national stage.”
Turns out, that national stage will be one Madrid knows well. From 2005-10, he and Gomez led LCU women’s teams to the NAIA Tournament every year, making the championship game in 2006. They won a lot of games at the Rip.
“Having our kids play on this stage as well as come back and coach on that floor is going to be exciting,” he said. “So much of what we do as a team as far as Xs and Os is the same exact stuff I learned when I was working for Steve. He’s had a lot of success with what he’s doing. It’s trickled down to where we are, and we’re having the same kind of success, so to speak.”