Wally Salata reflects on his coaching decade at Rio Rancho High School

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Wally Salata made his school’s eighth-grade basketball team as a sixth-grader, worked his way onto his high school’s varsity team from being cut twice to being the all-important sixth man, and got an opportunity to play college basketball out of the blue.

Some of his records still stand at Fresno Pacific, and after a brief pro career as a player and then player-coach in Mexico, Wally Salata, now 54, came home and decided to coach high school basketball.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who loves the game more, or another prep coach who’s as well-organized as Salata. (If you don’t think he’s organized, just peek inside his office.)

Salata recently reflected on his career and the game he loves after the second day of his 11th annual basketball camp, Rio Camp, where T-shirts remind all 123 youngsters “Practice like a champion.”

Moving from the Empire State to the desert

Times have changed since his parents, Mike and Pauline, brought the family from New York to Rio Rancho, believing he could escape the increasing crime of New York.

Mike Salata worked for AMREP, and little 8-year-old Walter — he didn’t become “Wally” till he played at St. Pius X in iconic San Sebastian Gym — took one look at what he saw and still remembers, “It was a big desert.”

Salata attended school at St. Mary’s for his elementary and middle-school years, playing softball and basketball until the middle school baseball coach, Ron Garcia, recruited him to play the game — he needed a catcher.

“I did baseball for a couple years; I didn’t like that,” he said. “I just stuck with basketball.

“I do remember going to Old Town (to play basketball), and then Haynes Park actually had some goals there — the only outside court I can remember playing on. And at St. Mary’s, a buddy of mine, Bobby Contreras, there was always two goals and we would stay out there until the sun went down because our parents worked and we had to wait for the ride.”

“Back in the day when kids were outside, we did that,” he said. “Whereas now, you don’t see too many kids outside. In my opinion, they’ve all got their electronics and they’re inside in an air-conditioned room, playing games.

That’s another change that’s evolved over the years.

“As a coach — and I think other coaches will tell you the same thing — technology has kinda changed the young population. When I say ‘young,’ you got kids that are 6, 7, 8 years old that have these electronics.

“When I was in high school, we didn’t have anything — I think Atari was the only game that we had. But we were always outside … but those days are gone. And I think it’s only going to get worse — I’m happy that we have as many kids in our camp that we do now, because you’re doing something right when you have 123 kids (including 22 girls) in camp.

Later, playing at St. Pius X, he helped the Sartans win the 1982 Class AAA state championship after entering the season as the team’s “13th man.”

“When I made it my senior year, I had to work my way up the ladder,” Salata said. “The third game, we were playing Eldorado — we were losing by 30. (Coach Bill Duffey) put me in; I actually played pretty well. And I was sixth man the rest of the year. We won state. … I was the first player in the state of New Mexico to be selected to the All-Tournament team coming off the bench.”

“He was so versatile he could play any position,” Duffey recalled. “He was a determined, driven kid and maybe the hardest-working kid year around I ever coached. (He) almost made the All-State team, yet he was our sixth man — he had a state tournament that was fantastic.”

Thanks to a recommendation from a Fresno high school coach — it’s a long story — Salata went on to play collegiately at Fresno Pacific (1983-87), after not being recruited “by anybody.”

He originally had hopes of playing at New Mexico Highlands University, where there were 25 guys working to make the team — Salata was told he was 22nd of 25 and opted to stop competing for a role with the Cowboys.

Though he’s been gone from Fresno Pacific 32 years, Salata still holds the Sunbirds’ record for free throws made (347) and steals (208 — 44 more than the next player); he’s second in assists (353) and fourth in scoring (1,273).

That’s primarily due to his work ethic: He remembers running sprints in oven-like the San Joaquin Valley, lifting weights, playing full-court one-on-one.

“I started my first game; never started in high school,” he said. “I started 117 straight games after that.”

Even after his college career, traveling to tryout camps for some now-forgotten leagues and a two-year stint south of the border concluded, he was playing in men’s leagues, on Kirtland Air Force Base and in Los Lunas.

“I wanted to keep playing — I wanted to play until I couldn’t play anymore.”

So, what happens to former players who love the game more than life itself? They become coaches.

Coaching in ‘the desert’

Rio Rancho has grown considerably — from its start as Rio Rancho Estates in the mid-Sixties to a city approaching 100,000 residents — since the Salatas arrived and, obviously, so has Salata. He just completed his 10th season at the helm of the Rio Rancho High School Rams. He still loves the game and said he plans to remain as head coach for at least three years: His youngest daughter, student-athlete Georgia, will be a sophomore this coming year and will graduate in 2022.

Salata got his first sideline opportunity as an assistant coach at Rio Grande, thanks to Pete Pino. That was followed by a stint at Los Lunas (1996-2000), then St. Pius X (2001-03) and Rio Grande (2005-09) before heading from the Ravens sideline — ironically, the coach (Brian Smith) he succeeded at RRHS was the same guy the second coach at Cleveland succeeded — when Smith left the Rams to build a program for the Storm in 2009.

As it stands, his “first half” of coaching was the combined 10 seasons with the Tigers, Sartans and Ravens; his “second half” has been the dime’s worth of seasons with the Rams.

Salata’s first five years were anything but memorable: In succession, the Rams received state-tournament seeds of 14, then didn’t qualify, 16, 16 and 15. The next five seasons, they were seeded 4, 11, 15, 12 and 3 – and won the blue trophy as the 11 seed in 2016.

The Rams play in arguably the toughest Class 5A district in the state, and although he’s won a state title, none of his 10 teams has won a district championship. The quest to capture an elusive 1-5A crown starts before the first tip-off of the season … with camps and summer league play.

Through two camps — Salata had 87 kids in his first camp, then 123 recently — he can get a feel for the future.

“Hopefully, what I’m teaching them — life-skill situations, things that they can work on at home; some of them will pick it up. Not all of them will, but we’re starting at a young age: We have 5- and 6-year-olds, all the way up to 13-, 14-, 15-year olds,” he said. “I’m excited that there are people out there that want to learn the game and I’m hoping that will continue as long as I’m here.”

Respect is the No. 1 thing he hopes they’d learn — “the biggest thing is that they’re having fun.”

Along the way, Salata sees incoming freshmen, which helps compile the program for the following season. A summer league team, for incoming freshmen, coached and evaluated by assistant Scott Garretson, helps prepare for the future.

“You get to learn the kids’ attitude (and work ethic),” he said. “That’s one of the reasons our freshmen teams have done so well the last three years; coach Garretson’s only lost three games in three years.

“Now, I’ve got to figure out, how do we get this freshman group to the JV and the varsity level? … Part of the problem is that some of them play other sports, some of them don’t work on their skills — they stop. So it’s a challenge.”

But he’s used to challenges, recalling even after he’d made the St. Mary’s eighth-grade team as a sixth-grader, complaining parents kept him from even playing in a single game. Then there was his battle to get on the court for the Sartans, make a college team and face situations as a player, then player-coach, in Mexico.

What’s next?

Salata said goodbye to two top-notch seniors following the 2018-19 season, David Patterson and Blaine Gallegos, who provided more than half of the team’s scoring and rebounds last season. Also gone is senior-to-be Owen Olney, whose family is moving to Magdalena.

“As a coach, you’re disappointed when a player leaves,” Salata said, referring to Olney.

“He was somebody that was going to be a key player for us, coming back, but now that he’s not here, we have a transfer coming in, Miguel Baray. He was here his freshman year … moved with his dad to Roswell for two years and now he came back. He’s one of those players that will fill in.”

Baray averaged 11.4 points a game as a junior with the Coyotes in 2018-19.

Salata said Baray learned the Rams system when he was here, and is very respectful.

“Usually you don’t get a senior that does that: Very polite — he does what you ask him to do — and those are the things you want all your kids to do.”

Salata wasn’t about to list Baray as a starter; his basic varsity team, less occasional absences from guys playing football, get about 30 games in the summer for him to continue evaluating.

“I know it’s summer, but we won 11 games in a row,” Salata said. “They’ve all got new roles; David’s not going to shoot the ball 25 percent, 30 percent of the time, and Blaine’s not going to be shooting it. So when you take 60 percent of the offense, who’s going to be shooting the ball?

“I’m excited for this group — I think we have more quickness and speed, where we can press a lot more … but we still gotta work on our man-to-man defense.”

As for Salata, more than 37 years after his memorable moments as a Sartan, yes, he’s seen the game change.

“I think back in the day, (kids) were better because they knew what fundamentals were and they didn’t have the distractions,” he said. “With the distractions now, what do kids worry about? The first thing a kid does when he catches the ball, he wants to shoot a 3-pointer. … You don’t see kids that shoot the mid-range shot, you don’t see kids use the backboard the way it used to be done. … They don’t use their left hand like they should.”

Salata wishes parents — and their sons — weren’t so adamant about being among the game’s starting five.

“I don‘t care if you start; I’m interested in if you can finish the game. And kids don’t understand,” he said. “(It’s) the selfish part, the entitlement.

“You play varsity last year, they expect to be varsity this year — and we keep telling ‘em, ‘Yeah, you play varsity, but you still gotta earn your position. The things we’ve got to continue to emphasize.”

The Rams have time to learn that and learn more about each other. The opener isn’t for about 21 weeks.

“The process starts in the summer,” Salata concluded.

“People say, ‘Why do you do it?’ Like I said, I do it because I love the game,” Salata said. “I will stop coaching and doing these camps when I don’t like getting up at 5 in the morning or doing 30 games in the summer.”

Salata said he has changed his coaching style: “I don’t stomp my feet anymore.”

Fans, sports writers and officials had noticed that for year, almost as if it was a trademark.

” I stomped because I couldn’t whistle.”

Rams coach Wally Salata, right, is interviewed by Proview Networks’ play-by-play man, Adam Diehl, after a basketball game in the 2018-19 season.