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Hoops & life: LifeWay employee guides team to state finals

PECOS, N.M. (BP)–For most high school basketball teams, reaching the regional tournament is good enough to consider the season a success. But the Pecos High Panthers coached by Leroy Ortiz are no ordinary basketball team, and this was certainly no ordinary season.

Ortiz, who serves as food service manager at the LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center, began coaching the Panthers just one month before basketball season started when the former head coach, Adrian Quintana, died unexpectedly. As the small northern New Mexico town of Pecos grieved over the loss of its coach, Ortiz and his team set a goal of reaching the state tournament in honor of Quintana.

Quintana’s death “was a shock to everyone,” Ortiz said. “The boys went through an emotional trauma…. But we set a goal of reaching the state tournament.”

Providing basketball and spiritual leadership, Ortiz guided Pecos through a season plagued by injuries and emotional setbacks. The Panthers engineered a 21-11 record, but saw their season on the brink — trailing in the second half of the regional semifinal.

Responding to a halftime pep talk by Ortiz, the Panthers opened the second half on a 30-6 run, won the game and advanced to the state tournament.

“That game was real stressful because if you don’t win that one, you go home,” he said. “And we didn’t want to go home. I wanted to get these guys at least to the state tournament … and be a participant in the final eight.”

More important than advancing to the state tournament, however, was the emotional and spiritual maturity the team had gained during the season, Ortiz said. At the beginning of the season the Panthers’ players received technical fouls in several games. But by the end of the season Ortiz was leading his team in prayer before each game.

“We would say a prayer before our games,” he recounted. “One of our kids … would lead us in a prayer, and each time he would ask for God to help us out and keep us free from injury.”

Frequently the pre-game prayers were led by Ortiz’s son, Lee, a member of the team. Ortiz said his sons Lee, 18, and Greg, 20, served as major encouragements to him throughout the difficult season.

Ortiz has raised his sons largely by himself since his wife died of an asthma attack when Lee was six months old. Sports have always provided good opportunities to spend time together as a family, Ortiz said.

Another major encouragement during the season, Ortiz said, were fellow employees at LifeWay who shared his burdens since Quintana’s death and encouraged him to lead the team in a godly manner.

Each week co-workers would ask for updates on both the team’s basketball progress and their spiritual progress.

“I had people at work that would constantly remind me of how they were praying for me and praying for those boys — not necessarily to win but to take care of them and have a successful season,” Ortiz said. “… I really appreciate all the support they gave me and their emphasizing the ministry that I was spreading to these boys.”

Ortiz’s ministry continued as Pecos advanced past the first round of the state tournament to the state semifinals at the 20,000-seat University Arena in Albuquerque. The morning Pecos was to play its state semifinal game, Ortiz remembers arriving with his team at the empty arena before 7 a.m.

“That was an experience,” he recalled. “Their eyes were wide open. They were ready to roll. Just looking down the ramp, looking at the floor and then walking onto the floor and looking around in an empty gym … was great for them and for me.”

After winning their state semifinal game, the Panthers lost 73-58 in the state final March 12. But the loss didn’t deter Ortiz or his players from declaring the season a success.

Along with his sons and his fiancé, Fredalene, Ortiz enjoyed the season as a time of growth and maturation.

“I think that’s what made the run that we made: the prayers and the faith in God to keep us strong through the whole thing,” he said.