Another high school sports year has come and gone, and with it goes another crop of graduating seniors.
Every year is special for its own reasons, and the same can be said about many of the athletes I’ve had the pleasure to watch. The Class of 2002 is particularly special to me. You see, I started covering sports for the News-Bulletin four years ago, so I’ve watched several of them play out their entire high school careers, and I’ve chronicled their exploits on the pages of their hometown newspaper.
I was around when Belen High School’s Jace Rivera shocked the world — or at least the state — by winning the state championship in the shot put as a mere freshmen. And I was there for the three others he won en route to becoming a four-time state title holder in the event.
I also remember Los Lunas High School’s Josh Hernandez when they called him “Kid.” He was a kid — a freshmen, who literally came out of left field to become arguably the state’s best high school baseball player his senior season as a hard-hitting shortstop and hard-throwing pitcher.
It was good to see those guys accomplish what they did during their prep careers. And I have no doubt that those two will go on to lead successful lives, whatever they end up doing. High school athletics has helped shape them into the persons they are today and has helped prepare them for the great unknown of what lies beyond graduation day.
Rivera and Hernandez are just two examples. There are many others who didn’t get the acclaim — didn’t achieve that same level of success — but nonetheless benefited from their participation in high school sports. They may not necessarily have been winners on the field, but they’ll be winners in whatever field they choose from here on out because of the lessons they learned while wearing Eagle and Tiger jerseys.
There’s too many to mention, but here are some examples:
Take Katherine Archuleta. Poor girl. She played on mostly losing Lady Eagle teams throughout her career as a volleyball, basketball and softball athlete. The volleyball and basketball teams, especially, had a hard time winning games — this past school year combining to win just 20 percent of their games. But Katherine never gave up; she didn’t quit, as some may have been inclined to do. As many times as she got knocked down, she got up. Her teams were never rewarded with championship trophies, but Katherine persevered and earned all-district honors in all three sports. I have no doubt: whatever obstacles she faces in her life, she will overcome.
I’m happy for a group of seven Lady Eagle athletes who achieved a taste of success as a team. I’m talking about Belen High School’s soccer team, which advanced to a state regional playoff game. For the second season in a row, they made it to the quarterfinals. And for the second season in a row, they lost to Moriarty.
I know how much those girls wanted to win that game. One of the most memorable moments I have from the past school year was the aftermath of that 1-0 loss to the Fighting Pintos. Tears were shed, mostly for the seniors. The sun had just set on their season. The lights at the Moriarty High School football stadium had been switched off. It was a surreal atmosphere that marked the end of a dream for those seven seniors.
That’s a memory that’s etched in my mind, and one I think those girls will carry with them forever. I trust they will each remember the joy that went along with those two state tournament appearances and that their hard work and dedication was worth the tears.
There were other sad moments I witnessed. It was heartbreaking to watch Bryan Stearley’s high school career end in a split second. The Tigers’ quarterback the last two seasons, Stearley’s athletic career at Los Lunas High came to an abrupt halt at the state track and field meet earlier this month when he and sophomore Matt Walker failed to make the exchange halfway through the qualifying race of the 400-meter relay. The Tigers wouldn’t have won it, but they likely would have qualified for the finals and given a more proper sendoff to the two seniors on the team — Stearley and Chirs Potter.
Though not as sudden, it was painful to watch Tiger cross-country runner Orlando Sanchez run what he called his worst race at the state meet in Gallup. He wouldn’t have won either, but he had a shot at the top three. Though he ran poorly, it wasn’t as bad as it may have seemed at the time. Sanchez’s 10th place finish earned him all-state honors. And he graduated as the district champion, having avenged a close loss the year before.
Other disappointments were more gradual. The Los Lunas boys and girls soccer teams and the Lady Tiger basketball team had high expectations for state tournament berths. The seniors on those teams felt it was their destiny to take their programs, which, in each case, were in miserable shape when they were freshmen, to the next level. But it was not to be.
In Belen, it hurt to see David Hull break both his wrists, sending the Eagle boys basketball team into a tailspin. Hull, who may be the best basketball player to come out of Belen in the last decade or so, bounced back and was able to return to the team for the district season. He led the Eagles to a second place finish, but they fell one win short of a state playoff berth.
David deserved better. One of the best all-around players in the state, he should have been rewarded with a shot at leading his team to a state title.
Some of the heartbreak was mixed with good feeling. I think of the Los Lunas baseball team that finished as state runner-up. Sure, they lost the championship game to Carlsbad. But led by Hernandez, and fellow-senior Carlos Castillo, the Tigers made Los Lunas proud. They took the program to a place it hadn’t been in 20 years. And like Castillo did in recording the final out, they went down swinging. For me, just them getting there and taking their cuts was enough.
The wrestling seasons were also bittersweet for the Tiger and Eagle teams. The Tigers were a minute away from an improbable state title in the state duel tournament. But senior Eric Kinsey got pinned.
He took it hard, and I felt bad for him. But I hope Eric will remember, as I will, it was a great match. The Tigers were up against the top-ranked team in the state, and they gave La Cueva all it could handle. It wasn’t Eric Kinsey who lost the state championship for the Tigers. As coach Tom Torres will tell you, the Tigers win as a team and lose as a team. There is no in between. That’s a lesson all six seniors can take with them the rest of their lives, and one that applies in business and in family.
Belen’s wrestling team had just one senior — Justin Gabaldon. He fell short of his personal goal of winning a state individual title, and the Eagles came up third in their bid to win as a team. But he’s one that learned from the experience. I asked him afterwards if he had any regrets. “No,” he said, because he had given it his all.
That’s as much as you can ask of anyone. It’s not always whether you win or lose, it’s that you played the game.
The Valencia County News-Bulletin is a locally owned and operated community newspaper, dedicated to serving Valencia County since 1910 through the highest journalistic and professional business standards. The VCNB is published weekly on Thursdays, including holidays both in print and online.