One might expect Steven Chavez to be overjoyed after being named to his first high school head coaching position at Belen High School after serving 14 years as an assistant. But that was not the case.
“It hurts,” said Chavez, who broke long-time ties with nearby Los Lunas High School. “It was the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life.”
The Chavez name is well-known in local wrestling circles but is most often associated with the northern end of the county. Chavez is one of four brothers who had outstanding wrestling careers at Los Lunas High School, Steven winning a state championship in 1984. He later coached three of his nephews while serving 11 years as Tiger head coach Tom Torres’ top assistant.
Parting ways with Torres is what made the decision especially hard, Chavez said. The Tigers were one of the state’s top programs while Torres and Chavez were together, winning a state title in 1998 and finishing as runner-up five times.
“Tom was more than a head coach to me,” Chavez said. “When I wrestled in high school, he was like a father figure to me. Later, when I became his assistant, the relationship changed, and we were almost like brothers.”
Torres, who has headed the Tiger program for 27 years, hated to lose Chavez.
“Coaching here for so long, I’ve always had a Chavez somewhere. To me they’re like a family,” he said.
Torres was sorry to see Chavez go, but he is happy for him too. “Congratulations to him. That’s good,” he said. “It will help wrestling in Belen and New Mexico. Steven is a good coach.”
But coaching in the shadow of Torres, who built the Tiger wrestling tradition and is a living legend in Los Lunas, may be what attracted Chavez to Belen.
“Sometimes you’ve got to leave the nest,” Chavez said. “It gives me a chance to see where I’m at as a coach — to see if I can establish my own program and see what I can do on my own.”
The Eagles are happy to have him. “Jerry Moya did an outstanding job for 13 years,” Griego said. “Now we’re fortunate to have a guy of Steve’s caliber to come in and lead our program.”
Griego said Belen had two excellent candidates to choose from. Rodney Romero, who led the Aztec Tigers to a state championship in Belen’s gymnasium last February, was also interviewed.
Chavez’s local ties are what gave him the edge, Griego said. “We know we’re going to get somebody who is a solid family man and a solid individual who knows the community and knows our kids.”
The Eagles, who placed third in the Class 4A duel tournament and fourth in the individual tournament at Belen last season, graduated just one senior. Chavez said he is familiar with a lot of Belen’s varsity wrestlers, mentioning some by name.
“They need to get better, and they can get better,” the coach said. “They’ll have to if they want to get to the next level.”
The Eagles collected eight third-place trophies under Moya, but haven’t won a state title since 1987. Chavez isn’t making any promises, but he said a state title is within reach for the Eagles as soon as next season.
“The potential is there. All they need is that extra lift. It depends on how fast they adapt to my way of teaching,” he said.
Chavez was, in all likelihood, the heir apparent to the head coaching position in Los Lunas when Torres steps down. But, “There are no guarantees,” Chavez said. “Belen gave me the opportunity this year. And, you never know, I might be back.”