Thirty years ago - almost to the day - a yellow school bus crested over the final apex of the horseshoe hill south of Taos. Visible to the waiting crowd first were the amber clearance lights, then the headlights. The lettering on the side of the bus read: Taos Municipal Schools. The guests of honor had arrived.
On car stereos, "We Will Rock You" from Queen blared. Horns and sirens pierced the night as passengers inside the bus opened the windows and dodged their heads and arms out to greet the cheering mob. The special homecoming celebration was on for the newly crowned state champions from Taos.
On February 27, 1988, The Taos High School wrestling team traveled to Belen and acquired what many thought was the first state (team) title in the school's long history in any sport. Record books would reveal that Taos earned a track and field championship in 1924, but most sports fans treated this modern accomplishment as Taos' first. Thus, the gathering of Taos High students, alumni and community members, formed solely by word-of-mouth and (landline) phone chains, amounted to dozens of cars, trucks and emergency vehicles seeking to escort the triumphant warriors back into town.
The parade of white and red lights stretched for a couple of miles as the slow-moving caravan made its way toward Paseo del Pueblo Sur and Cervantes Road. As the bus approached the Taos High School parking lot, a different crowd had assembled at the school to greet the team as they disembarked from the bus. The combined entourage filed into Otero Gymnasium where the late Coach Anthony Gutierrez addressed the 200 fans in attendance and showered praise on his men.
One of those men was Robert Valencia, an individual champion in the 119-pound division and one of five other Taos Tigers who were crowned that day as well. Valencia, who is the current head coach of the Taos Tigers wrestling team, has been striving to reclaim a bit of that glory for his men. And now, women.
The Tigers repeated as state champions the following year, although the celebration was far less spectacular. What was not known at the time, was that a long drought would ensue. Twenty-nine years to be exact until Taos would bring home another state wrestling trophy.
The drought ended February 17, 2018.
The Taos Tiger wrestling team brought home hardware, after clinging to a one-point lead over the Robertson Cardinals to place third at the New Mexico state wrestling tournament in Rio Rancho Feb. 16-17.
The Tigers acquired that lead after Jesse Ayala won the individual title in the 220-pound division over Isaiah Sanchez from Silver City. Ayala and the Tigers needed every point he was able to muster in his finals match, including a fall (pin) on Sanchez at the 5:29 mark to catapult Taos into the third place slot with 153 total points. The Cardinals finished with 152.
Ayala was only one of three wrestlers for Taos who garnered a championship medal on the day. Tyler Valencia was crowned champion in the 132-pound class for his outstanding victory over Irven de La Torre from Cobre, and Elisha Duran was the best female wrestler in the girls 131-pound division, making history as the first woman to win a state title in wrestling for Taos.
For Coach Valencia, it was his second consecutive year that at least three of his wrestlers came out on top.
Individual state champions
Individual state champions for Taos included Tyler Valencia, who, despite having a 41-8 (.837 win percentage) was not afforded a bye in the first round. Instead, Valencia was matched up with Secudino Martinez (19-25) from Robertson at the very top of the 132-pound division bracket.
This was the second time in six days that Valencia and Martinez squared off, as the two met in the semifinals of the district tournament in Tucumcari Feb. 10. As was the outcome in that district meeting, Valencia outmatched his opponent and won by fall (pin) in the opening minutes of the match.
Valencia would go on to defeat Aaron Gonzales (18-20 overall) from Socorro by fall in the quarterfinal round, and Kyle Toya (18-9 overall) from Bernalillo by fall in the semifinals.
The three victories garnered by Valencia during each of the first three sessions would set up a finals match with top seeded Irven De la Torre (33-5 overall) from Cobre. In last year's semifinal match in the 120-pound weight class, Valencia and De la Torre battled evenly through multiple overtime periods, only to see the contest decided by a coin toss (known as an ultimate tie breaker). A favorable toss for De la Torre sent him to the finals and Valencia to the consolation side of the bracket, where he would eventually finish in third place.
In this year's rematch, Valencia left no doubt in his superiority, nor did he flirt with leaving his fate to chance as he out-dueled De la Torre wire-to-wire to win by major decision, 11-1. In his wake, and in the 27 points garnered through all his wins, anticipation grew among Taos fans as the point gap between Taos and Robertson narrowed.
Closing the gap and earning honors would fall squarely on the shoulders of Taos Tiger junior, Jessie Ayala (24-8 overall). The 220-pound District 2/5-A/4A champion made it to the title match by receiving a by in the first round, pinning Dominic Clyde (1-3 overall) from Wingate in the quarterfinals and pinning Josh Roybal (27-12) from Pojoaque Valley in the semifinals.
His opponent in the finals, Isaiah Sanchez (22-15 overall) from Silver seemed poised to claim the title, and utilized a variety of tactics to try to intimidate Ayala before the match. Aggressive pacing, stare downs and scowls meant to distract Ayala were evident from almost any seat in the large arena. Through it all, Ayala remained stoic and calm. In fact, the psychological warfare appeared to embolden the newly named team captain as he stepped on the mat and took command of the moment.
Late in the third round, both Ayala and Sanchez looked fatigued as the grudge match turned into a test of wills. Then, with a surge of energy, Ayala began to overpower his opponent with a series of quick strikes and aggressive holds, eventually pinning Sanchez at the 5:29 mark.
While an exhausted Ayala was being officially deemed the winner by the head referee, anxious eyes from the Robertson and Taos camps gazed at the scoreboard to see the final tally. Cheers erupted from the pocket of Taos fans as the results of Ayala's 26 points and final team scores revealed Taos was in third place with 153 points and Robertson in fourth with 152.
Several team points were the result of so many wrestlers who placed third or better in the tournament. The lone runner up for Taos was Estevan Valerio (40-7 overall) who lost to Javier Tapia (30-0 overall) from Pojoaque by a 2-1 decision in the 170-pound title match. In the lead-up to the championship, Valerio received a by in the opening round and pinned Nicholas Apodaca (26-21 overall) from Robertson in the quarterfinals. He would also win his semifinal match by pinning Nathaniel Lucero (31-18 overall) from Silver at the 3:34 mark. For his efforts, Valerio would add 20 points to Taos' team total.
Third place winners included Christopher Valencia (29-21) who scored 14 team points in the 120-pound division and Jonathan Garcia (39-13 overall) who earned 20 points in the 138-pound class. Clayton Demas (27-14 overall) was the third place winner in the 182-pound division, and Morgan Thompson (11-3 overall) picked up a third place medal in the 285-pound division.
Collectively, the two girls who competed for Taos - Elisha and AnnaLiz Duran - scored enough points to earn a third place as a team as well. AnnaLiz came in third place in the girl's 106-pound division and earned 15 points. Elisha claimed the title in the 131-pound division.
AnnaLiz Duran won her 106-pound quarterfinal match by fall (pin) over Beatrice Loving from Highlands High School at the 1:34 mark. In the semifinals, however, Duran lost to Isabella Wells from Aztec by fall two and a half minutes into the contest. Wells would eventually go on to win the title in the 106-pound weight clas
Shifting over to the consolation side of the bracket, the sophomore faced Daniella Magallanes from Rio Grande High School and pinned her at the 2:37 mark to advance to a showdown match against Neveah Young from Gallup in the consolation finals. The two tiger ladies battled evenly for one and a half rounds before a barrage of points were acquired by Duran who would win the match by a 12-4 major decision.
Elisha cruised through the 131-pound class - pinning all of her opponents - despite a noticeable weight difference between her and the other girls in the division.
In the girls brackets, the NMAA utilized a modified weight system," said Coach Valencia, alluding to a clustering of competitors known as the Madison Style. "This means that all competitors that weigh between 121 and 128 pounds must wrestle up."
Such was the case as Duran was one of the lightest individuals in her class. In the quarterfinals Duran (3-0 overall) won by fall over Celi Kamplain (1-2 overall) from Moriarty. The semifinals saw Duran pin Kynthia Yazzie (1-2 overall) a mere 41-seconds into the match. In the first place match, Duran used her superior skills to defeat the much larger Selvi Gallegos (2-1 overall) from Sandia High School by fall at the 2:55 mark.
"All I had to do was just let my training and practice show itself," said Duran, who repeatedly thanked her coaches for working with her all these years. "I was totally prepared for the competition."
The teams scores were as follows: In first place was Silver with 270 points, followed by Cobre with 176. Taos was third with 153, Robertson was fourth with 152. Rounding out the top five was Tucumcari with 81 points.
On the girls side, the overall winner was Miyamura (Gallup) with 58 points. Atrisco Heritage was second with 42 points and Taos was third with 39 points. Sandia was the number four team with 34 points and Bernalillo was fifth with 31 points.
No trophies were awarded to girls teams; however, all participants were given commemorative medals to mark the event.