Significant changes are coming to high school wrestling in New Mexico this season, but one constant will likely remain — Valencia County schools will be loaded and ready to go to the mat with just about anyone.
New Mexico teams will compete under a new format. District competition will remain, but a regional tournament will now decide state qualifiers while the state championship will have only two classes for boys wrestling.
Los Lunas High School
The Los Lunas Tigers were only nine points out of first in last year’s 5A State Wrestling Championship, bringing home a third-place trophy. LLHS had six wrestlers in the top four individually, with three returning — runner-up, Miguel Andrade; and Aaron Zamora and Noah Gurule, who each came in fourth.
“We’re looking good actually,” Gurule said. “We’re definitely stronger at the lower weights, but we have some hammers at the heavier weights.”
Coach Steve Chavez says, “the outlook looks great. We have a lot of veterans coming back, a lot of good kids.”
While Chavez says there is work ahead, “we have a very nice nucleus to work around and that’s very important. We have some tough kids who are going to be good leaders. We’re ready to take on any task.”
While Chavez says the Tigers must “work out the kinks,” he expects Los Lunas to contend again.
“Traditionally we’ve been a powerhouse. I want to continue that. You can never count out Los Lunas,” the coach said. “That’s everyone’s motto in the state. Don’t count out Los Lunas.”
Belen High School
You know the bar is set high when there is disappointment in a fourth place team finish in the 4A state tournament.
That is how two-time individual state champion Damian Wood feels about the Eagles placement last season. Wood believes Belen has some “loose ends” to shore up, but “We’ll do pretty good as a team. By the time the season starts, the tournament, we’ll be ready.”
Wood brings a certain mentality to the wrestling room.
“I like being competitive — how tough wrestling is,” Wood said.
He compares it to his other passion.
“I also ride bulls and you have to be tough to do that,” he said. “Wrestling is just like that.”
Aside from Wood, the Eagles have two other defending state champions with Ely Gutierrez and Diego Avila.
However, Avila is coming off a knee injury in football. Others to watch include Marcus Rimorin who placed third at state and fifth-place finisher Bobby Orona.
Coach Nick Sanchez doesn’t like to look too far ahead.
“My philosophy is to not say what we’re going to do but just go out and do it,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got quality kids in the room. We’re just waiting for football (players) to heal up.”
Valencia High School
Numbers are up at Valencia High School, where Manuel Aragon takes over as head coach.
“We do have some talent,” Aragon said. “If we can adjust them just a little bit I think they will be very successful.”
Richard Madrid is optimistic about his junior season.
“We have a strong team, a very good coach,” Madrid said.
Sophomore Joey Bracamonte says the adjustment with a new coach is going well.
“I like it a lot. We can go far this year with the group of kids we have,” he said.
As for the competition ahead, Bracamonte said, “Put them in front of us, we can take them down.”
During his first season, Aragon is focusing on “making sure we all stay healthy and that we are all students first. The goal is to instill hard work and dedication and give them as much support and tools and resources as I can.
“We’ll focus on building a family and unity, where the athletes support each other and adapt to each other.”
The New Mexico Activities Association has altered high school wrestling this season, and the changes are getting mostly positive reviews in Valencia County.
There will be two classes — 5A, which includes Los Lunas, and will have 27 schools.
Belen and Valencia will be in 4A with a total of 38 schools.
Each class features two regional tournaments, which will decide qualifiers for state. Los Lunas will be in a region with schools mainly in the south, while Belen and Valencia will be in a 4A regional that also has a southern flavor.
“I love the two classes,” said LLHS coach Chavez. “It’s about time they combined 3A and 4A together,” Chavez said. “You’re going to have the best 16 wrestlers at state. In the past, it was more of a wildcard when they went by record. It’s fair.”
Belen coach Sanchez said the new alignment was needed.
“It makes our kids better, individually.” Sanchez said, saying he believes New Mexico could eventually go to a one class, one state tournament system like California and Texas.
“College coaches recruit more out of those states.”
Jaguar wrestler Madrid said, “It’s going to be harder. A bigger bracket, bigger everything.”
As girls wrestling continues to grow, there will be just one state tournament for all teams.
At the start of practice, each Valencia County high school had a handful of girls out for competition. The News-Bulletin will have more on the girls’ season in the near future.
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.