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Rio Rancho’s hoops coach calls end of season ‘Heartbreak City’

A case of déjà vu?

Two years after the Rio Rancho Rams lost a district tournament game at Cleveland High, and then lost a first-round game at Cleveland eight days later, it happened again.

This time, there was a 15-day lag between the losses in the Thunderdome, but each time that first-round loss ended the Rams’ season.

Truth be told, there had been a time when postseason appearances weren’t a regular occurrence for the Rams and their fans.

Rio Rancho’s initial foray into the state tournament was in the 2005-06 season — RRHS’s ninth season of existence and coach Brian Smith’s first of four at the helm — and they got to play in The Pit for the first time, losing there to Alamogordo, 63-58, in the quarterfinals.

Smith went 4 for 4 when it came to taking the Rams into the postseason, including a state title in 2007. He then departed for Cleveland High School when it opened, and his successor was Wally Salata.

To date, Salata has led the Rams for 11 seasons, gone to state 10 times and won it all in 2016, when the Rams were the 11 seed.

They were the 11 seed this year, but fell short, namely because of injuries. And when they won all the marbles four years ago, the Rams beat Cleveland in The Pit, 49-43, in a semifinal contest.

Every team loses players to graduation, with the Rams losing last season’s top scorers Blaine Gallegos and David Patterson, the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, in May 2019. But the Rams also lost a guy who would have played a key role, Owen Olney, who moved with his family to Magdalena — and late-season injuries to transfer Miguel Baray (from Roswell) and the current scoring leader, Christian Lucero, hampered their chances.

“The thing is, we finished 14-14 and people look at that but don’t understand the adversity we had this year,” Salata said. “Between players’ injuries (and) things that happen at home. As coaches, we’re like psychologists, parents — second parents to some of these guys, and we had a lot of distractions, but we kept it together.”

“We played our guts out. … We did everything that we were supposed to do — I’m not going to change anything, as far as preparation,” Salata said after the March 7 loss at Cleveland.

It wasn’t as bad as the Rams’ 67-43 loss at CHS on Feb. 21, when the Storm out-scored the Rams 29-6 in the final period. In the March 7 showdown, the Rams were within four on several occasions in the fourth quarter and would have been within three except for two missed free throws with just under four minutes to go.

“Cleveland was the better team — Cleveland, to me, is the team to beat,” he added. “They’ve got a great coaching staff and personnel-wise, they had things we didn’t have: We don’t have guys that can jump over the rim to get the ball, like Tre (Watson) and Nate (Hasberry).

“Again, it’s heartbreak city,” Salata said. “For what we overcame as a team, and I’m not talking about the last few weeks — there’s been a lot going on the whole year and we were able to stabilize it.

“This is nine years in a row we made the state tournament, and I don’t care what anybody says. When you make the state tournament nine years in a row, you’re doing something right and we want to continue to do that,” he concluded. “We’ve got some drive; what’s gonna make them work harder in the offseason?”

Seniors Isaiah Chavez, Tyrese Watson, JT Gallegos and Baray will be gone via graduation, but fans will see a lot more of a couple sophomores who got their feet wet with the varsity (Keagan Caton and Jeremiah Morris), plus veterans Junior Hodnett, Vance Rudolph, Nathan Arroyosd and Lucero, and a couple who saw limited playing time as juniors, Lamar Bynum and Logan Martinez.

Add in the fact that the Rams’ freshman team went 21-0 and the junior varsity was almost as good with a 21-2 record, and Salata seemingly has some talent to get him through another season — and a 10th straight trip to the dance.

Junior Christian Lucero’s scoring touch was a factor in the end of the season for the Rams. He’ll be back for the 2020-21 season.

Salata found a gig of sorts, lending his decades of basketball wisdom to Rio Rancho’s ESPN Radio, 101.7-FM The Team, and its coverage of the state tournament at The Pit. It’s not the first time he’s lent his knowledge of the game he loves to a local radio station.

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