Two head coaching positions are now open at Española Valley High School – including the school’s most prized.
Española School District Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez said on April 4 that boys basketball head coach James Branch and volleyball head coach Damon Salazar’s contracts were non-renewed for the 2019-2020 seasons.
“It’s a personnel matter and we’ve decided to go in a little bit of a different direction with both programs,” Gutierrez said. “I’m not going to say anything beyond that.”
Head coaching contracts run on a year-by-year basis at the High School.
“It’s always the athletic director’s option to advise the superintendent which coaches they want to continue and which coaches they want to non-renew,” Gutierrez said.
The news comes just a few weeks after Theresa Flores took over as the interim athletic director after Ruben Salazar retired after the conclusion of the winter sports season, and also one week after Branch was named the District 2-4A Boys Basketball Coach of the Year after leading the Sundevils to a 17-10 record and regular season district championship.
Branch guided Española to the state championship game in Class 5A in 2018 and posted a 45-12 record in two seasons as head coach, while going undefeated in regular season district play in both years.
“Obviously I’m disappointed,” Branch said. “Two years isn’t enough time to implement a different system and philosophy.”
Just weeks after the Sundevils’ first round exit to Del Norte High School, Branch was able to reflect and said he was most proud of how his team handled adversity during the course of the season, battling back from a 5-6 record in the month of December.
“In this profession, we ask our kids to handle adversity and bounce back when the going gets tough and stay the course,” he said. “We refused to give up and kept going. I will resurface. All this did was light a fire under me. I will not allow this setback to define me.”
One place Branch is expected to apply is at rival Los Alamos High School.
Salazar had coached volleyball at Española since 2009 and is also well known for his involvement in club volleyball throughout the area for last 20 years. During his time at Española, he sent 14 players onto the next level to play collegiately at one level or another.
His opinion on the firing came down to one word.
“Silliness,” Salazar said. “That’s the choice they’re making I guess and they didn’t give us any reasons for it. It’s silliness, again, and I don’t know what the reason is and I don’t know what the purpose is: I just hope they can find someone who put in the time that we put in. We did have a behavioral issue at state (this past season) and I guess that’s what they might be blaming it on.”
Salazar said he was most worried about the continuation of the offseason operations used to fundraise the program that he spearheaded for so many years, which would raise about $6,000 to $7,000 annually through club tournaments, children’s camps and league play on Tuesdays in the summer months. He also noted that finding a coach with volleyball credentials could be an issue, as he was the only applicant who applied last season when the position was reopened again.
“I don’t think they’ll find anyone that cares about Española as much as I do,” Salazar said. “The only place I wanted to coach was Española. I don’t coach because I gotta be a high school coach, that’s not my gig. I coached because it was Española Valley and that’s where I was from. I think we get a bad rap and the kids don’t deserve that.”
Española was 14-8 in Salazar’s final season in 2018, and overall, his record at the school tallied off at 131-91. Under his watch, the Lady Sundevils only had losing seasons in 2017 and 2011.
Salazar led Española to the state tournament seven seasons in all, including every year since 2011, aside from 2017. The Lady Sundevils lost in the first round of the state tournament this past season in a 3-0 defeat to Santa Teresa High School.
Salazar said the support he’s received from players and parents has been insurmountable in the past days, as he received countless calls over the weekend while taking a club team to play in a tournament in Las Vegas, Nev.
“They’re pissed off,” he said about the current players. “They think it’s ridiculous. I’ve gotten a lot of calls from ex-players, current players and parents, so nobody is really happy about it. Maybe Bobbie doesn’t care for me or for my style of coaching. Maybe it’s board members, but everyone tells me, ‘You’re such a good coach,’ but yet I won’t be coaching.”
While Gutierrez was unable to point out specific reasons or incidents for either of the firings, she did shed light on the simplicity of school board policies.
“I think sometimes employees forget we have board policies and procedures that we have to adhere,” she said. “Whether we agree with the policy or not.”
Both positions were posted for applicants on April 5.
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