Way out on U.S. Highway 70, past Zeke's General Store and towns so small the post offices have dainty curtains in the windows, sit the adjoining southeastern Arizona towns of Thatcher and Safford. They are places where routine and tradition have a way of becoming the same thing, and neither goes down without a fight, whether it's the annual fiddle contest, breakfast-counter socializing at the local diner or winning basketball teams.
All by itself, Thatcher High School claimed eight state boys' basketball championship teams between 1980 and 1991. Just down the street, the unheralded Gila Monsters of Eastern Arizona College had never known a losing season in 24 years with coach Chuck LaVetter at the helm.
That is, until last year, when not even fans waving Horrible Gila Hankies could help. LaVetter's squad finished 14-16.
If there was any consolation, it was that Eastern's football team was doing far worse. In fact, the team's ineptitude was lurking dangerously close to becoming a tradition in itself. Before that could happen, Eastern, which also sports a vaunted volleyball program, opted to temporarily scrap the football program. That left LaVetter, the newly appointed athletic director, free to concentrate on making things right again in his own domain, and assistant basketball coach Bob Pruszynski was sent off to Maryland and Ohio to recruit like crazy.
The results were impressive.
"Now we're eight deep," says Las Vegas product Tyrell Jamerson, who started on last year's sub-.500 squad. "I guess they didn't want that to happen again."
This year's Gila Monsters are truly scary, the nation's only undefeated team, a status unmatched by either its fellow junior colleges or by any Division I team, the UCLAs and North Carolinas of the world. After chomping up petrified Pima Community College, 97-66, in their season finale, the Gila Monsters head into this week's state junior college tournament with a 30-0 record, ranked second in the country. (Spartanburg, South Carolina, is ranked first.) The winner of the state tourney will advance to the national championship finals in Hutchinson, Kansas.
"Monster Ball" has returned to Thatcher in a big way.
"Our season just kind of built, and everybody wants to be part of it," says Coach LaVetter in his office one late afternoon before the team takes on very brave Scottsdale Community College. His 1984 squad was also quite ferocious, going 26-4, but couldn't crack the national Top 10.
Now the phones are ringing like mad. People desire reserved tickets, and they want his help acquiring them. The last home game, people had to be turned away. Now folks are clamoring for the right to butcher the national anthem, and the band wants to occupy a whole bloc of bleachers for the entire game instead of escaping at halftime like it used to.
"This town has just gone nuts," says Anna Romney, a 19-year-old freshman who herself played high school hoops at Thatcher High. "The people that normally come still come--but there's more."
Many more. The games are selling out. A sign saying so has been made for such occasions. At the campus bookstore, Eastern Arizona College garment sales are up, particularly among adults. It should be noted that the Eastern logo features an upright Gila monster decked out as a grinning gunslinger.
Over at the Golden Corral, a Safford steak house, the marquee often bears messages in support of the team. The Golden Corral is where, not long ago, they held the "Meet the Monsters" breakfast. The Thatcher/Safford community came out and met the Monsters and the Monster coaches and the Monster families. The local paper took pictures.
A great part of the attraction is that a very large and unassuming local boy is a member of this year's team. Dennis Griffin is six-foot-nine, and he played for a Thatcher High team that won state championships both his junior and senior seasons, then played a year at Eastern before embarking on a two-year LDS mission. He returned this year. His timing was impeccable. Next year, he will attend the University of Colorado.
"We go to all the home games," says his mother, Zesta Griffin. "We have nine children of our own. We go en masse."
Along with Griffin, there is a 25-year-old freshman by the name of Jody Beck, whom Coach Pruszynski describes as the Magic Johnson of the team. For a period earlier in the season, Beck was averaging double figures in three categories, the much-admired triple-double. Coach Pruszynski convinced Beck to give school another try after he had withdrawn a few years ago from Northern Idaho.
There is Mohammed "Mo" Tijjani, a six-foot-eight Nigerian product whom Arizona State passed over after the coach who recruited him absconded to Brigham Young University. He already has committed to Southern Methodist University for next year. There is Marco Johnson, a mercurial shooting guard who convinced six-foot-four forward Harold Joiner, a buddy from his Dayton, Ohio, neighborhood, to give the desert experience a try. There is also Mike Coleman, and Asim Rose, and--well, this team is very deep.