Panthers gearing up for another state title run

Karl Schneider
Piedra Vista's Nick Rino, top, and Aztec's Austin Littlefield wrestle for the District 1-5A title on Feb. 14 at Jerry A. Conner Fieldhouse in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – The Piedra Vista wrestling team begins its search for a sixth straight state title this season.

The Panthers held off Belen 294.5-283 last season to claim the 5A title. PV lost eight seniors from last season’s team. Of those eight, seven placed fifth or better at the state tournament, including five-time state champion Anthony Juckes, and two-time champs Sam Sandoval and Phillip Archuleta.

“We’re somewhat inexperienced this year, but we’re not going to let it discourage us,” PV head coach Michael Bejar said. “We need to keep a competitor’s mentality. We’re going to have some losses, and we can’t focus on those and the negative.”

But losing wrestlers to graduation is nothing new to PV, which every season reloads its roster with talented freshmen or by moving wrestlers up from the junior varsity level.

Part of PV’s long-term success is the result of its junior and middle school programs, which have eased the transition of young wrestlers to the high school level.

“That’s a huge part of what we do and what we’re focused on,” Bejar said of the youth and middle school programs. “Our program hasn’t changed. We’re doing the same things in the middle school programs as we do at the high school level, and it really helps the kids when they’re making that transition.”

Bejar said the key to this season will be consistency.

Two wrestlers PV should be able to count on for consistency are sophomores Nick Rino and Wes Rayburn. Both won state titles as freshmen, and their ability to share their knowledge and experience of success at the state tournament will be needed to help along their less-experienced teammates.

“That’s huge. You’re going to be a leader no matter what when you’re a state champion that young,” Bejar said.

Bejar said he’s expecting seniors Dylan Greenhaus and Alberto Marquez to be major contributors this season after both placed third at state last season. And he’s excited for senior Taylor Atenio to get his shot at the varsity level.

“Taylor is going to open some eyes this season, and he’ll help with the leadership,” Bejar said. “He’s been in the program a long time and just waiting for his chance to show what he can do. I’m really excited for him and what he’ll be able to do this season.”

Aztec and Farmington relied on a corps of young wrestlers last season, and both programs will return the bulk of last season’s roster.

Aztec finished 10th at the state tournament last season and, like PV, will return a duo of sophomores to lead the team this season. Austin Littlefield placed third and Dominic Dufur finished fifth at state last year, and head coach Monte Maxwell will look to them to help guide the rest of the team during the season.

“They’re both moving up the ranks,” Aztec head coach Monte Maxwell said of Littlefield and Dufur. “They’re just sophomores, and they’re improving every day and working toward their goals.”

Based on what he’s seen from the Tigers during preseason practices and their scrimmage with Durango and Pagosa Springs, Maxwell said he is proud of how his team looks.

Maxwell said he’ll be looking for good things out of seniors Melvin Benally, who worked his way up through the Aztec program, and Dylan Sutherland, who is still getting into the flow of wrestling after playing football in the fall.

Maxwell is also expecting senior Josh Snow, sophomore Josiah Griego and freshman Cody Candelaria to be leaders on the team.

Farmington lost only two wrestlers from last year’s team to graduation, sending the Scorps into this season with a wealth of varsity experience. However, the Farmington wrestlers are still very young.

The Scorpions six of the eight wrestlers who qualified for state last season, and only one, senior Kameron Schrock, will be an upperclassman. The other five returning state qualifiers are sophomores Zach Valdez and Traden Allison, and freshmen Alex Rodriguez, Gavin Blair and Garrett Maxey.

Farmington finished 17th at last season’s state tournament, scoring 28 points.

Farmington's Dominic Hines, bottom, wrestles Piedra Vista's Phillip Archuleta on Feb. 3 at Jerry A. Conner Fieldhouse in Farmington.

Farmington head coach Jesus Mendoza did not return multiple phone calls for comment.

PV will open its season today, travelling to Moab, Utah, for a two-day tournament.

Farmington will get its season underway Saturday at the Tiger Duals in Los Lunas.

Aztec won’t see into its first meet until Dec. 11, when the Panthers compete at the Bloomfield tournament.

Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648.