There’s a new sense of urgency on the mats at Española Valley High School this season, and head coach Aaron Salinas believes the time for his wrestling team to succeed and capture a District 2-4A team title is now.
The successful recruitment of football players plays into that belief, because this season will be the first in many where the Sundevils will consistently fill almost every weight class.
“If these guys work hard and have the belief they can do it, this should be our year,” Salinas said. “Once we get that District championship, it could be a few years before anyone comes and gets it from us because we have a lot of young, seasoned wrestlers. We finally got a lot of the football players and that’s what we’ve needed: we needed the bigger guys out here and that’s what we finally got.”
Salinas said the hope is to field 14 varsity wrestlers, with the 160 or 195-pound weight class being one of the two possible vacant spots.
If there’s one name that pops out among the roster, it has to be junior Devin Atencio, who wrestles at the 106-pound class. A state champion his freshman season at rival Los Alamos High School, Atencio was forced to sit out last season for eligibility but is ready to get back on the mat in 2019-20.
He’s stayed busy though, continually working with his father, Emilio, who coaches at the Española Junior Wrestling facility in San Pedro.
Atencio is confident about his ability to become a state champion again as he continues to gain more mat time, but he said the main goal for the season is the District title.
“There was a lot of tension from Los Alamos that I had with them, so it be great to steal that title from them,” Atencio said.” “I’ll have to focus on what I need to do to win a state championship again and do it for Española, my hometown, instead of Los Alamos. That would mean a lot more.”
Española’s returning wrestler who nearly placed in the top six at the state tournament last season is Nicko Pacheco, who will be the team captain in his senior season. He will wrestler at 145 pounds.
“I think this is gong to be a great year and it’s really positive having guys at almost all the weight classes,” Pacheco said. “This is my last year, so I will try to get back to state again. I’m eager to get out there and learn from my mistakes and work on my stamina.”
One class above Pacheco is fellow senior Martin Martinez, wrestling at 152 pounds. Salinas said the two have built a strong, competitive bond so far in practice, which should bode well for the two once they get into competition.
“Nicko use to be able to handle him pretty good but now Martin is kind of figuring him out and working him hard,” Salinas said. “Martin told me the other day, ‘If I beat him once, I’ll beat him every time, that’s just my character.’ I told Nicko that and he said, ‘Well that’s not going to happen.’ So, that’s great to see.”
Although an eighth-grader, 120-pounder Cruz Sandoval is one of those seasoned wrestlers, as he’s been a regular working with coach Atencio at the Academy for several years. Devin Atencio’s brother, Landon Atencio, enters as a freshman and will wrestler at 113.
At 182 pounds will be junior Aaron Altamirano, who Salinas believes can have a breakout year.
“He’s getting stronger and getting better and gaining a lot more confidence,” Salinas said. “A lot of those tough guys he was facing last year from Pojoaque, Los Alamos and Taos have graduated, so now it’s time for him to step up.”
Sophomore Jacob Martinez will wrestler at 220, as opposed to competing at 195 pounds, which he did a season ago. Salinas said it’s possible for him to lose weight in a safe manner to return to 195, but that wouldn’t happen until closer to the District and state championships.
Española has three heavyweights on the roster in Caleb Romero, Adrian Martinez and Chris Salazar. The faster, bigger Adrian “Diesel” Martinez is expected to compete at the varsity spot.
Last year, Española opened the season at the Jaguar Invite at Capital High School, but Salinas opted to begin the season this year at the Southwest Shootout, held Friday and Saturday at Rio Rancho High School.
“There’s pros and cons (about starting at Rio Rancho),” Salinas said. “If we wrestled at Capital, they could tune out and not get a lot of mat time. Going to Rio Rancho, we are guaranteed five matches the first day and four or five the following day. It’s great to get 10 matches under your belt right away and some of my seasoned wrestlers can come out 10-0 right away.”