RIO RANCHO — Somehow, at the bottom of the tangle of teenaged arms and legs was Nick Sanchez, the first-year head wrestling coach at Belen High School.
Whether it was pre-planned or spontaneous, the Eagle wrestlers celebrated the team’s dramatic half point 4A state championship victory with a joyful dog pile on the floor Saturday at the Rio Rancho Events Center.
After finally catching his breath and taming his emotions, Sanchez tried to explain what it all means.
“It feels good to win it as an athlete but, as a coach, it feels even better,” said Sanchez, who won three team championships and an individual title as a BHS wrestler. “I’m just glad we brought it back home.”
“It means everything,” said BHS senior Ely Gutierrez, who put the Eagles in position for the title with a victory at 160 pounds. “If you had told me a couple of months ago we were going to make a title run, I probably would have laughed in your face.”
The Eagles’ championship almost didn’t happen. After building a narrow lead, BHS wrestlers struggled in the championship round while Bloomfield started to roll and moved in front.
That’s when Gutierrez came through with his second individual title when his competitor was injured and unable to continue.
“It’s not how I wanted to win, but it’s definitely risky when you step on the mat,” he said.
That left just one match remaining to decide the title. When Bloomfield’s 285-pound wrestler was pinned, the Eagles watching nervously from the sidelines, erupted in celebration and soon followed with the dogpile.
“I’m proud of the way the team pulled through. We won it as a team,” said Sanchez, who thanked the fans and assistant coaches. “This belongs to them more than me.”
Belen edged Bloomfield 176.5 to 176.0. Valencia High School placed 27th.
Almost as impressive as the Belen victory was the Los Lunas effort in a very loaded 5A field.
The Tigers finished in fourth place, just one point behind Atrisco Heritage who took the third-place trophy. Volcano Vista took the team title.
LLHS held a slim overall lead heading into the quarterfinals, but only Miguel Andrade advanced to the championship round.
“The kids did well. We wrestled tough,” is how LLHS coach Steve Chavez sized up the effort. “Those other teams are pretty loaded and we’re pretty young.”
One of the best feel-good stories of the entire tournament was Andrade at 215 pounds. In each of the previous three years, Andrade reached the state finals, only to come up short.
His wrestling career would end with an individual title, a 38-0 record, a heart-felt hug for his coaches, and no more nagging “what if’s.”
“I was trying to think to myself, ‘Don’t be as tired as you are,’” Andrade said shortly after pinning his La Cueva opponent. “I was just trying to keep going. (It was) my last match ever so leave it all out there. I wanted to get it done really bad.”
In the one-class girls championship, Andie Saiz, of Belen, was the lone Valencia County competitor to medal. Saiz was runner-up at 107 pounds. Belen girls finished 24th, while Valencia and Los Lunas tied for 36th in the 49-team field.
Volcano Vista captured the girls and boys state titles, a first for the same school. Both teams are coached by 2007 Los Lunas High School graduate Ahren Griego, who was assisted by his brother, Joshua Griego, who also grew up in Los Lunas.
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.