The Taos Tiger wrestlers ended their season on a high note at the 2017 New Mexico State Wrestling Championships at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho Feb. 17-18.
The team finished fourth, with three individuals claiming state titles. A raucous Taos crowd made the trip to the lonely, yet modern vessel-like arena in the dusty mesa above Bernalillo to witness the Tiger grapplers show their stuff.
Taos brought 10 qualifying wrestlers and participated in bouts spread out over the two consecutive days. As a team, Taos finished with 141.5 total points and placed seven wrestlers in the top-four of their respective weight classifications. This year’s state champions were the Silver Fighting Colts, who garnered 222.2 points, followed by the Cobre Indians who tallied 189.5, and the Robertson Cardinals who came in third with 175 points.
While all the state championship wins for Taos were sweet, the first of the day felt like a bolt of lightning hit the arena as Christopher Valencia electrified the Taos fans with a dramatic pin to claim his first title.
Valencia’s path to the pinnacle of his 2016-17 season began with a bye in the opening round of the 113-pound division. He came into the tournament as the No. 2 seed, with a 32-13 overall record and as the District 2/5-4A champion. In the quarterfinal match, the sophomore met up with Tony Lopez from Tucumcari and pinned him at 1:02. It was the second meeting between Lopez and Valencia in a week as the two wrestled in the semifinals of the district tournament Feb. 11.
In the semifinals, Valencia met up with Joshua Montoya from Pecos who made it to the round via a bye in the first round and a win by forfeit in the quarterfinals. It took Valencia a mere 48 seconds to pin Montoya to advance to the finals and a showdown with the top seed, Ricky Villalobos from Silver City.
In the finals, Valencia wrestled marvelously and overcame his higher-ranked opponent with speed and superior technique to pin Villalobos at the 2:46 mark. The feat produced a groundswell of emotion that could not be contained by his proud father and coach, Robert Valencia, or the raucous Taos Tiger fans.
“I know the feeling,” said coach Valencia, whose mouth was having a hard time trying to describe his feelings about his son’s crowning achievement, but whose eyelids had no trouble saying what was in his heart. “We’ve worked so hard for this.”
Robert Valencia was an individual state champion himself in 1988 in the 119-pound division, and a member of Taos’ first state championship in the sport.
“I know it’s not easy to have your dad as the coach,” he said. I’m always on [Christopher’s] back — pushing him with his grades, his nutrition and his workouts. It definitely paid off.”
His son acknowledged the push, and thanked both of his parents for their constant support and encouragement.
“After last year, I said no more,” Valencia said, who made it as far as the semifinals in 2016. “I made a decision to work harder and to become more focused and bring back the Valencia name to wrestling.”
With the pin on the senior from Silver City, Valencia finished the season with a 35-13 overall record.
Unlike his qualifying teammates who made the trip to Rio Rancho, Diego Valerio was the top seed in the 126-pound division, which came with some lofty expectations. Valerio did not disappoint. Yet again, the sophomore sailed through the bracket racking up points for his team and wins for himself.
Although Valerio was the No. 1 ranked wrestler in his weight class, he did not receive a bye in the first round. His first opponent was Johnathan Velarde from Pojoaque who he pinned at 1:47. In the quarterfinals, Valerio easily won his match over Desree Bryant from Wingate with a pin at the 30 second mark. The semifinals pitched Valerio against Kyle Toya from Bernalillo in a rematch from the district championships in Taos Feb. 11. In that bout, Valerio pinned Toya at the 3:10 mark. In the final-four round, Valerio won by a 10-0 decision to set up the finals between the District 2/3-4A champ and No. 2 seed Lonnie Sandoval (36-12) from Silver City.
Sandoval reached the finals via a forfeit in the first round, a 26-second pin on Sapphire Williams from Shiprock in the quarterfinals and an 8-2 decision over Zeke Solis from Cobre.
In the title match, Valerio jumped out to an early lead and held on to defeat Sandoval 4-2 to claim his second state title in three years.
“I really put in a lot of work and extra time to reach this goal of becoming a two-time state champion,” said Valerio, who was an individual state champion in 2015, but finished third in 2016. “It takes a lot of effort to get to this point, and I want to thank my coaches and my family for being there for me — in my corner.”
Valerio finished the 2016-17 campaign with a 45-5 overall record.
Donning his signature “touchdown grizzly bear” t-shirt, Estevan Valerio prepared for the 182-pound title match in his usual way: deep in “the zone” and pacing mat side as he limbered up. With the need for all three championships (class 6A, 5A and 4A) to have the same start times, Valerio’s pre-match routine went longer than usual.
It may have played to his advantage.
He was the third and final title competitor for the Taos Tigers, and was favored to win as the second seed taking on the fourth seed. His opponent, Travis Burson from Moriarty upset the No. 1 wrestler in the bracket, Martin Rodriguez from Tierra Encantada in the semifinals by a score of 5-3.
Valerio reached the finals via an opening round fall over Sheridan Smith from Wingate at the 1:01 mark, a 28-second fall over Autumn-sky Jim in the quarterfinals and a 12-2 decision over District 2/5-4A foe Pete Aragon. The final match was a thrilling come-from-behind win by Valerio over the stout Burson who jumped out to a two-point lead in the second period and seemed to have the match all wrapped up. A late third period strike by Valerio, however, was enough to propel the Taos sophomore to a 4-3 victory.
The win gave Valerio a 35-11 overall record and his first state championship.
In post-match remarks, Valerio was overjoyed with the accomplishment. “It’s absolutely amazing,” said Valerio, who overcame an injury to his knee in 2016 to rise up and claim this prestige.
Third place finishers
The first place wins were emotional as expected, as the top point-getters for Taos were Christopher Valencia, Diego Valerio and Estevan Valerio.
But there were many other emotional and athletic matches.
Starting the medal accumulation round for the Tigers was Tyler Valencia, who lost a nail-biter earlier in the day in the semifinals of the 120-pound division to Irven Delatorre from Cobre in overtime. Valencia rebounded in the consolation semifinals to advance to the third place match by overpowering Estevan Atilano from Pecos by a score of 15-0. Cauy Ute from Shiprock was no match for Valencia as the Taos sophomore claimed the third place medal by a score of 11-2. He ended the season with a 37-13 record.
Joining Valencia on the consolation side was the lone senior on the squad, Brandon Montoya, wrestling in the 132-pound division. Montoya made it to the semifinals via a bye in the opening round and a 15-10 victory over Alex Gutierrez from Foot Hill. The subsequent loss to the eventual runner-up, Andru Sanchez from Cobre, moved Montoya to the consolation round for a rematch with District 2/5 foe Julian Vargas from Tucumcari. Montoya was able to claim the 12-3 decision and eventually garnered the third place medal with a 5-2 decision over Zachary Batie from Moriarty. Montoya finished his senior season with a 24-16 overall record.
Rounding out the third place finishers for Taos was Morgan “Mox” Thompson – who entered the state tournament as a seventh seed and wrestled a total of four matches in the 285-pound division. Thompson, a Taos High School junior who hails from Taos Pueblo, received a bye in the first round and lost in the quarterfinals by fall at 4:48 to Michael Marin from Ruidoso. On the consolation side, Thompson pinned both Tyler Litzin from Shiprock at the 1:59 mark and Cesar Saenz from Pecos at 1:27. The third place match saw Thompson defeat Isaiah Valverde from Tucumcari to redeem a loss to the junior Rattler a week before in the district finals. Thompson’s overall record improved to 19-14 after the two-day tournament.
The last Taos wrestler to place at state was Clayton Demas (29-17 overall) who placed fourth in the 195-pound division after a five match performance.
“Nothing was given to us,” said coach Valencia, who reiterated that his kids were due their credit and this fulfillment was the result of hard work. “We kept our focus and kept growing as a team. This is the outcome.”