Coaches of the year: Benny Mitchell and Lisa Abeyta-Valerio

Taos Tiger coaches guide athletes to life goals, trophies Lisa Abeyta-Valerio and Benny Mitchell defend their rings

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2016-17 was the year of the four-peat for two Taos Tiger teams – dominant in their respective crafts and extremely lucky to have two of the finest people to lead them.

Track coach Benny Mitchell and cheer coach Lisa Abeyta-Valerio both wrapped up the 2016-17 season with another blue trophy for the Taos High School trophy case – bringing the dynastic haul to eight total state crowns between both programs.

The parallel paths to four apiece have inherent differences due to the types of team dynamics that exist within each sport, but both coaches credit their team’s success to same attributes: setting high goals and working hard.

Coach Abeyta-Valerio

“We establish the work ethics very early [in the year]. The young athletes that come to us also learn quickly that they must be willing to work hard – day in and day out,” said Abeyta-Valerio, who trains her teams all year-round.

Before state competition, Abeyta-Valerio remarked that the motto the team adopted for the year was ‘work four it!’ – a play on words that was meant to remind the team that the goal of four straight titles had to be earned every day leading up to their five minutes on the floor.

All the hard work culminated in a stellar performance by the Tigers at “The Pit” and the long-awaited declaration by the officials:

The moments before the announcement of the winners was called, the anticipation seemed to cause strain on the fingers, hands, wrists and forearms of the Taos Tigers cheer team inside “The Pit” March 25. Joined together with clutched hands, bowed heads and sealed eyelids, the unbroken chain of orange- and white-clad teammates murmured indistinct whispers as the Hope Christian Huskies were named. . . .the third-place winner.

Taos had been here before – multiple times even – so it seemed like the team should have been used to the suspense. But the moment of truth was about to be revealed as to whether or not a fourth state title was in the stars for the Tigers. Upper lips were pursed and a hush fell over the team as the public address announcer declared, “Second place goes to. . . .the Portales Rams!”

A miniature celebration ensued. The team knew that Taos was in the lead going into day two, and Portales was the closest threat to derail the chances of a fourth consecutive blue trophy for the Tigers in Class 4A cheer. Quickly, though, team captains and upperclassmen quelled the foot-stomping so as not to jump to any premature conclusions that might jinx a dream come true. Then, ending the torment, the Taos Tigers were set free from their seats as they exploded in a starburst pattern when the announcement was definitive: The class 4A state championship goes to the Taos Tigers!

The cumulative score for the Tigers over the course of two days and two routines was a whopping 177.38 points. Taos was second only to the 6A Mayfield Trojans, who finished with 177.67 points in their respective class.

“We know we have a target on our backs every year,” said coach Abeyta-Valerio. “But the girls always amaze me. They certainly did it again this year, and they seem to remain hungry to keep their standing.”

“It’s really satisfying knowing a few of the girls also can say they are four-time state champs.” Abeyta-Valerio was referring to her seniors, Daniella Abeyta, Marissa Brown, Marissa Gallegos and Gabriela Winter, who had been with the program since eighth grade (but did not win a state title until their freshman year). Juniors with the same distinction included Ashley Chavez, Anjelica Fresquez and Heaven Valdez.

The Tigers may face a new challenge as conference realignment may put the team in a higher classification with different competitors. In the meantime, Abeyta-Valerio and a handful of her girls can call themselves “four-peaters.” 

Coach Mitchell

“The creation of a dynasty has to start somewhere,” said coach Benny Mitchell. “I’d like to believe that Taos could one day be known as a great running town, a running mecca.”

Mitchell certainly has to be pleased with this possibility, as the boys track and field team once again came away with an impressive state championship May 13.

This latest state victory was the fourth in a row for Mitchell and his thinclad stars, as the Tigers racked up 67 points as a team and fended off a furious pursuit by the Portales Rams and the Silver Colts to defend their reign as the top boys team in Class 4A. The Taos boys did so by responding to the coaches who asked the team’s members to give everything they could – on a day when they needed it the most and on the biggest stage. It was an extraordinary performance at the 2017 New Mexico state championships held at Great Friends of University of New Mexico Stadium that included teams from the larger 4A, 5A and 6A classifications.

“We keep completing our goals,” said Mitchell, alluding to the benchmarks he shares with his coaching staff and athletes throughout the year – before, during and after the track and field season. “All of the goals that we set for ourselves at the beginning of this season were met.”

In an interview at the conclusion of last year’s season, Mitchell shared his core vision and approach as a head coach – not knowing how prophetic his words would become at the conclusion of this year. “Do better each time, bring down times and increase distances, bring out the best during home meets, win districts, set new school records,” said Mitchell, who witnessed this list of goals come to fruition again in the 2017 season. “And of course, we believe we should win state every year.”

Unlike last year’s team which went wire to wire and scored a whopping 97 points at the state meet, this year’s team provided Mitchell and Tiger fans a bit of drama.

Taos ended the first day of competition, which included some field events and preliminary heats in all dashes and relays, with a total of 12 points – a lackluster showing for the powerhouse Tigers. A dropped baton by the Tigers’ 4-x-200-meter relay team resulted in “did not finish” or DNF for Taos, which meant that the team was disqualified from finals competition on day two. This in turn meant that Taos could no longer gain any points from this event – points that the Tigers counted on, as this particular relay team was predicted to win the event with ease. Taos did qualify its remaining relay teams.

As day two progressed, points started to trickle in, but Taos was in a vulnerable position. Taos’ closest competitor, Portales, acquired momentum early in the morning – building on a sizeable lead as the Rams’ throwers racked up valuable points. It wasn’t until the late running events started up that Tiger fans began to see the point gap narrow a bit.

The Tigers began to chip away at the Rams’ lead with strong individual performances from Dalton Donaldson in the hurdle events and Jonah Vigil in the sprint events. Then, a pair of lightning bolts hit the Taos Tiger express when Alejandro Salazar and Simon Mount turned in big-time results in their respective events, electrifying the gathering crowds inside UNM Track Complex and dashing the hopes of Colts, Pintos and Rams – again.

When asked about the keys to this year’s victory, Mitchell had a two-word response. “They responded.”

“We had a team meeting at the end of competition Friday, where we talked to the kids,” said Mitchell, who reiterated how unforgiving the state meet can be. “We reminded them that it’s a very thin line when they get on a stage like this.”

Mitchell continued, “But, we didn’t rant and rave at them,” noting how young his team really is with just two seniors on the roster. “We just leaned in a bit and told the boys they got to want to work.”

With regards to the future of his program, coach Mitchell is optimistic about keeping up this winning pace. “We should have some key members returning to us next year, but we’ll miss our two seniors tremendously,” said Mitchell, referring to Mount and Ryan McCarty. “There’s some pretty big shoes to fill right there.”

“Otherwise, the culture is set up for younger kids coming into the program,” said Mitchell, who wouldn’t go so far to make any predictions about next year, but wryly nodded his head. “These kids know what is in front of them and have to want to work for it. They just have to go get it.”

Indeed, coaches, go get it!

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