BELEN — Six years after Belen won the New Mexico 5A Boys State Basketball Championship, three members of that team are back on the Eagles’ bench.    

Instead of jerseys, Omar Rojo, Uriah Zingerly and Matthew Padilla are now wearing maroon and white Polo shirts, shouting out instructions as coaches rather than driving to the basket as players. 

Mike Powers| News-Bulletin photo
Uriah Zingerly, Matthew Padilla and Omar Rojo, players on the 2018 Belen state championship basketball team, are now Eagles’ assistant coaches.

“They’re very knowledgeable,” said head coach Donald Marquez, who was the head assistant under Andrew Dunnell during the 2018 state title run. “They bring that youth to the team, being that I’m a little older coach,” along with J.D. Latter, the Eagles’ current top assistant.   

That knowledge came from working hard in the trenches, not as star players. 

“None of us three were the ‘main dudes’ on our state championship team,” said Padilla, who is in his first year on the BHS staff. “We try to bring along the idea of team ball — we need everybody, and everyone has a role.”  

Perhaps Rojo exemplifies that best. While his brother, Jordi, is a standout on this year’s team, Omar scrapped for playing time.   

“I was on the verge of getting cut every single year,” he remembers. “I went from absolutely getting zero playing time to being the sixth man and playing a pivotal role on that team. One thing that I try to express to the players is never give up.”  

Sticking with basketball was always part of the plan for Padilla and Zingerly. 

“I just love basketball so much I wanted to stay involved,” is how Zingerly put it. “Eventually, I want to be a head coach of my own program.”   

Zingerly adds coaching in a game is almost better than playing.  

“The adrenaline that you get; the excitement just watching your kids who put in all the hard work, watching them reward themselves.”  

For Padilla, whose cousin, Raymond Montoya, is a former Eagle and current head coach of the Valencia girls, coaching was always a priority. Padilla was on the staff at Manzano, where Dunnell is now head coach, before returning to Belen this season.   

“It’s a real nice feeling to just stay home, get back to where we started everything — the experience has been amazing so far. Giving back to the community is something I really enjoy.”  

Unlike the other members of the trio, Rojo, a biology teacher at BHS, is a bit surprised to be coaching.  

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do out of high school,” Rojo said. 

However, the next year he started to help the team, and “I fell in love with it. I was pretty much living in the gym.”   

Despite their relative youth, these 20-somethings feel they bring invaluable experience to the court. Rojo says they won at all levels, so they can bring a certain perspective to a program that has struggled in recent years.   

“We won the ‘big boy,’ the state championship, so to bring that winning culture and what it takes to be winners,” is their mission.  

All three say they don’t spend much time talking about the “glory days” with current players. “I try not to bring up a lot of stories. One thing I’ve learned is they are not us, and we’re not them,” explains Rojo.  

“This is their time, and we want the best experience for them,” Padilla adds. “We’re just trying to help these guys to get somewhere where we’ve been.”  

However, Zingerly admits, “We still are young at heart and have that fire where we just want to run around. Not being able to play still eats at us.”  

Rojo says he’s grateful for his mentors who coached him along the way — Dunnell, Marquez and Rhett Burt, now an assistant principal at BHS.  All contributed to his new passion.  

“I love it. I thought I’d never love coaching — just the amount that I have learned from year one to year now,” has been eye opening.  

Marquez has also seen the growth and what the three have brought to the program.  

“That work ethic. What it takes to win a championship,” Marquez said. “How it starts in practice, how it starts in the offseason. They show up to practice early. They watch film. They work as hard as coaches as they did as players.” 

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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.