Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo
From one elite eight to another, Justa Whitt is chasing basketball redemption.
It’s told in the margins of two team photos, and like the curvature of the hoop around which it centers, this story starts in Ignacio, and it ends there, too.
It takes more than 20 years to trace the narrative rim from browbeaten baller to conquering coach, but Ignacio’s prodigal daughter finally is back where she belongs.
Whitt, now the Ignacio High School girls basketball program’s first-year head coach, got her first taste of basketball’s elite eight in March of 1993 as a 6-5 center on the University of Colorado women’s basketball team, which made a run deep into the NCAA Division I Tournament.
That signed team picture from that first elite eight appearance still hangs at the salon where Whitt works.
Signature company she’d earned, in part, with what some Ignacio community members saw as an act of athletic betrayal: After growing up in Ignacio’s school system and playing two years in the Bobcats’ girls basketball program, Whitt changed uniforms.
For her final two years, the girl who could’ve been Ignacio’s big star became Durango High School’s big gun, instead.
“I went to school here (in Ignacio) all my life,” Whitt said. “Because of my size and potential, I went to Durango High School my last two years of high school.
“And that was something that was held over me for a lot of years,” she said.
It’s an easy sentiment to understand. As a Demon wearing red and white of a different stripe, Whitt put her name in the CHSAA record books, shooting an astronomical 62 percent from the floor in the 1990-91 season, which still ranks seventh all-time in Colorado prep history.
That’s a lot of baskets the Bobcats missed out on.
But Whitt’s bailing from Ignacio two decades ago put the Bobcats on an unforeseen path – a road to the CHSAA Class 2A Girls Basketball State Championships’ elite eight for just the third time in IHS girls basketball history.
It’s another team picture for Whitt – this one as first-year head coach – and a first elite eight team picture for her girls.
Though she’s quick to place the praise other places – former head coach Brice Searles, foremost, and assistant coach Bri Simbeck, next – the Ignacio girls basketball team wouldn’t be playing Akron at 10:15 a.m. today at Massari Arena in Pueblo without Whitt.
They wouldn’t have a 16-7 record, either, or San Juan Basin League regular-season, district and regional titles, all for the first time in at least a decade.
“She’s coaching aggressively; she’s got the kids working hard, and the kids are working hard for her,” IHS athletic director Rocky Cundiff said. “That’s what I wanted, and that’s what she’s doing.”
Credit those years playing with America’s collegiate elites, born of a decision first to play for the other team.
Undersized and for the most part lacking an air of natural athleticism, the Ignacio girls don’t look much like a basketball team.
They just play like one.
Part of that, Whitt said, comes from years of playing together – some girls have been teammates since fourth grade – allowing ample time to develop a deep sense of each others game.
“They still have the wherewithal to know what they should be doing, even though they aren’t the biggest girls on the court,” Whitt said.
But the other big part of that basketball skill comes from taking on a 6-5 college center every day in practice.
“I’ve gotten in and banged with the post players ever since I got in as an assistant, and I know that’s made them better,” said Whitt, who served as Searles’ assistant coach the previous three years.
“I go full force against them. I play just like I would against the regular players in college, and I make them go around me, and I seal them off and make them play defense.”
The day-in, day-out banging has worked wonders for a team that often appears outgunned by girls who look the standard basketball player part.
It’s also a reason why the teams that look like winners so often have walked off the court losers when they play the Bobcats.
Whitt’s toil has taught the IHS girls to fake shots, battle for position and always play tight defense.
Visualize, forget mistakes, communicate, move on, use teammates, work on and off the court.
“That’s definitely helped them not be afraid of bigger players,” Whitt said.
They’ll need it today against Akron, which comes into the game undefeated (24-0) and the defending state champions. The Rams have all five of their state-champion starters and size, too.
But at this point in a postseason tournament, as Whitt well knows, anything can happen.
“There’s no reason that we can’t take it to them,” Whitt said.
Like many, Cundiff remembers when the teenage Whitt took her game to Durango. But the community moves on, he said, and now, the wins and losses don’t matter so much as the investment in the girls.
“Whatever you do to help our kids, I’m OK with,” Cundiff said. “And she’s helping our kids.”
Hard work in basketball teaches hard work in life, “and the No. 1 thing is teaching life skills,” he said.
Whitt proves that as well as anyone.
Twenty years after working one team into the elite eight, she’s worked another into the Ignacio record books with an elite eight of their own. That’s worth at least another team picture and some more signatures.
Perhaps at last, it’s worth some final redemption, too.
“It’s just really kind of bittersweet that I get to come back here and repay where all my life was spent up until my last two years of high school and give back to the young ladies that I’m coaching,” Whitt said.
“And that’s one of the main reasons I coach: to give back what I was given.”