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High school wrestling teams embrace change and high expectations

Mike Powers | News Bulletin Photos
The Belen Eagles finished fourth in 4A, bringing back five top finishers.

Significant changes will come to New Mexico high school wrestling this season, but one constant will likely remain – Valencia County schools will be full and ready to take on just about anyone.

New Mexico teams will compete in a new format. District competitions remain, but a regional tournament now decides state qualifiers, while state championships have only two classes for boys.

Los Lunas High School

The Los Lunas Tigers were just nine points off first place and brought home a third place finish at last year’s 5A State Wrestling Championship. LLHS had six wrestlers individually in the top four, three returning – runner-up, Miguel Andrade; and Aaron Zamora and Noah Gurule, who each finished fourth.

The Los Lunas Tigers roster includes three wrestlers who placed at the 2021 5A State Championships.

“We actually look good,” Gurule said. “We’re definitely stronger at the lighter weights, but we have some hammers at the heavier weights.”

Coach Steve Chavez says: “The prospects are looking great. We have a lot of veterans coming back, a lot of good kids.”

While Chavez says there’s still work to be done, “we have a very nice core to work around and that’s very important. We have some tough kids who will be good leaders. We are ready to take on any task.”

While Chavez says the Tigers “have to solve the problems,” he expects Los Lunas to compete again.

“Traditionally we were a powerhouse. I want to continue that. You can never rule out Los Lunas,” the coach said. “That’s the motto of everyone in the state. Don’t count out Los Lunas.”

Belen High School

You know the bar is set high when a fourth-place team disappoints at the 4A State Tournament.

Here’s how two-time singles state champion Damian Wood thinks about the Eagles’ placement last season. Wood believes Belen has some “loose ends” to support, but “we’re going to do pretty well as a team. When the season starts, the tournament, we will 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 for that,” he said. “Wrestling is just like that.”

In addition to Wood, the Eagles have two other defending champions in Ely Gutierrez and Diego Avila.

However, Avila is recovering from a knee injury in football. Others to watch include Marcus Rimorin, who finished third on the state course, and fifth-place finisher Bobby Orona.

Coach Nick Sanchez doesn’t like to look too far ahead.

“My philosophy is not to say what we’re going to do, just go out there and do it,” Sanchez said. “We have good kids in the room. We’re just waiting for football (players) to get well again.”

Valencian High School

The new Valencia Jaguars coaching staff are enthusiastic about the talent they are working with.

The numbers are rising at Valencia High School, where Manuel Aragon takes over as head coach.

“We have talent,” said Aragon. “If we can adjust them just a little, I think they will be very successful.”

Richard Madrid is optimistic about his youth season.

“We have a strong team, a very good coach,” said Madrid.

Sophomore Joey Bracamonte says adjustment is going well with new coach.

“I like it a lot. We can go far this year with the group of kids we have,” he said.

Referring to the competition in front of us, Bracamonte said: “Put them in front of us, we can beat them.”

In his first season, Aragon is focused on “making sure we’re all staying sane and that we’re all students first. The aim is to instill hard work and dedication and give them as much support, tools and resources as possible.

“We will focus on building a family and unit where athletes support and adapt to one another.”

Wrestling is changing

The New Mexico Activities Association changed 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 has two regional tournaments that determine qualification for the state. Los Lunas will be in a region with schools mainly in the south, while Belen and Valencia will be in a 4A region that also has a southern flair.

“I love both classes,” said LLHS coach Chavez. “It’s time they combined 3A and 4A,” Chavez said. “You’re going to have the top 16 wrestlers in the state. It used to be more of a joker when it came to a record. It’s fair.”

Belen coach Sanchez said the new direction was necessary.

“It makes our kids better individually.” Sanchez said he believes New Mexico could eventually go to a one-class, one-state tournament system like California and Texas.

“College coaches are recruiting more from these states.”

Jaguar wrestler Madrid said: “It’s going to be more difficult. A bigger bracket, bigger everything.”

As girls’ wrestling continues to grow, there will be only one state tournament for all teams.

At the beginning of the training, each Valencia County high school had a handful of girls competing. That Newsletter will have more on the girls season in the near future.