ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Seasons change. The major players in New Mexico prep wrestling do not.
The 2013-14 season begins, and is expected to end, with the usual suspects – led by Rio Rancho and Rio Grande – looming as favorites in Class 5A.
Last February, the Ravens and Cleveland shared the 5A title.
Rio Rancho has three state champions returning: senior Jordan Lara (160 pounds), and juniors Miguel Barreras (152) and Orlando Gutierrez (132).
Lara will be at 160 or 170 this season, with Barreras filling the other slot. Gutierrez projects to be the Rams’ 138-pounder.
“They expect big things,” Rio Rancho coach Mike Santos said of his team.
Four other state placers return for the Rams.
Rio Grande, coming off its first state title in 25 years, has an excellent chance to go back-to-back.
The Ravens should be extremely competitive, paced by senior Logan Wolfel at 170 (he was second at 160 last season) and senior Leo Maestas at 182 or 195. Maestas was third at 170 last season.
Rio Grande has four other wrestlers – Isaac Lopez at 106, Clayton Arellano at 138, Matias Sainz at 145 and Loren Vigil Jr. at 152 – who placed fourth or better at state last season.
“Huge potential,” said Rio Grande coach Loren Vigil. “Top to bottom, it’s a stronger team than I had last year.”
Cleveland also had three state champions last season in Paul Manzanares, Clayton Pankey and Arturo Vigil. But unlike Rio Rancho’s trio, the Storm’s champions graduated.
The Storm had 11 placers at state last winter. Key returners for Cleveland are sophomore Trey Nicoley at 113, freshman Shawn Nieto at 126, sophomore Julian Roybal at 132, senior Kevin Guillen at 138, junior Jesse Nieto at 145 (a state runner-up last season at 138) and senior Matt Romo at 195.
“I like this group a lot,” Cleveland coach Corey Anderson said. “They’re pretty diligent. Now that we’ve been around for a couple of years, we have a culture. I think we can feed off that.”
Anderson expects Cleveland to challenge for the trophy podium in February.
Atrisco Heritage and Volcano Vista could also be in the mix as the season progresses. The Jaguars finished fourth at state last season, their first as a 5A program. James Romero (heavyweight) and Nathan Corrigan (160) both are state title contenders for Atrisco. Romero was the state runner-up at 195 last February, while Corrigan placed third at 152.
The Hawks, led by junior Willie Chavez at 120 and senior Nate Sierra at 182 – both were state runners-up last season – have a new coach, Ahren Griego. Volcano Vista graduated its two state champions, Lawrence Otero and Cameron Huizar.
“I have no doubt we can become a No. 1 team this year,” Griego said. “I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to win state.”
The reason Volcano Vista has a new coach is because its old coach, Mikey Lovato, had a yearning to go home.
West Mesa made big noise in the offseason. Longtime coach Lenny Lovato retired. His nephew, Mikey, who won three individual state championships for his uncle while with the Mustangs, has come home to lead his alma mater.
“I grew up in that wrestling room, and my family has been involved with wrestling at West Mesa for 25 years,” Lovato said.
The Mustangs lost a state champion in DeShun Brown, who was the team’s lone placer at state.
Formerly a state power, West Mesa hopes to get back in the mix.
“I won’t say I have the most talented team in the state, not even close, but me just being there right now, they have shown me great leadership, great heart,” Lovato said. “I’m gonna bring West Mesa wrestling back to where it used to be.”
Other metro-area 5A wrestlers who should be in the mix for a state title include Eldorado’s Logan Gonzales, last season’s state runner-up at 113, Manzano’s Chris Collins, the second-place finisher at 182, and Valley’s Seth Mello, second at 220 and back at that weight this season.
The Albuquerque Public Schools Invitational, next weekend at La Cueva, will be the first traditional major event of the season in the city.
Several of the area’s top programs, including Cleveland and Rio Rancho, are at Las Cruces’ invitational this weekend.
The top other top New Mexico events, the Joe Vivian Classic and the Albuquerque Metro Championships, will come after the new year.