From one elite eight to another, Justa Whitt is chasing basketball redemption.
Its 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 Ignacios prodigal daughter finally is back where she belongs.
Whitt, now the Ignacio High School girls basketball programs first-year head coach, got her first taste of basketballs elite eight in March of 1993 as a 6-5 center on the University of Colorado womens 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 shed earned, in part, with what some Ignacio community members saw as an act of athletic betrayal: After growing up in Ignacios school system and playing two years in the Bobcats girls basketball program, Whitt changed uniforms.
For her final two years, the girl who couldve been Ignacios big star became Durango High Schools 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.
Its 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.
Thats a lot of baskets the Bobcats missed out on.
But Whitts 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.
Its another team picture for Whitt this one as first-year head coach and a first elite eight team picture for her girls.
Though shes quick to place the praise other places former head coach Brice Searles, foremost, and assistant coach Bri Simbeck, next the Ignacio girls basketball team wouldnt be playing Akron at 10:15 a.m. today at Massari Arena in Pueblo without Whitt.
They wouldnt 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.
Shes coaching aggressively; shes got the kids working hard, and the kids are working hard for her, IHS athletic director Rocky Cundiff said. Thats what I wanted, and thats what shes doing.
Credit those years playing with Americas 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 dont 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 arent 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.
Ive gotten in and banged with the post players ever since I got in as an assistant, and I know thats 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.
Its also a reason why the teams that look like winners so often have walked off the court losers when they play the Bobcats.
Whitts 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.
Thats definitely helped them not be afraid of bigger players, Whitt said.
Theyll 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.
Theres no reason that we cant 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 dont matter so much as the investment in the girls.
Whatever you do to help our kids, Im OK with, Cundiff said. And shes 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, shes worked another into the Ignacio record books with an elite eight of their own. Thats worth at least another team picture and some more signatures.
Perhaps at last, its worth some final redemption, too.
Its 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 Im coaching, Whitt said.
And thats one of the main reasons I coach: to give back what I was given.