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Night of Champions shows how Lobos are getting stronger

University of New Mexico redshirt freshman defensive end Bryce Santana increased his personal best in the squat 40 pounds, getting up to 565 pounds at the Night of Champions Tuesday at University Stadium. (Courtesy of UNM Athletics)

Bryce Santana, a University of New Mexico redshirt freshman defensive end, could squat 485 pounds when he was a standout senior at Los Lunas High School two years ago.

Santana has come a long way since then, even enduring the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic last year. He said UNM’s Night of Champions at University Stadium on Tuesday only pushed him to greater heights.

Santana upped his max in the squat three times, pushing up 535 pounds, 545 pounds and then with all his teammates surrounding him and a crowd of about 300 in the stands cheering him on, he had a new personal best of 565 pounds. Before Tuesday, his max was 525 pounds.

“It felt amazing, like a big boost of adrenaline,” Santana said of the atmosphere. “This is a good way to get out into the community and get excitement around the football program.”

UNM coach Danny Gonzales, a former Lobo player and assistant, brought back the Night of Champions after a 13-year hiatus. The event is a weightlifting competition, yet the UNM teammates encourage each other to achieve their personal best. Having fans in the stands only put the spotlight on the players that much more.

The Lobos, in turn, responded, as 18 of the 20 who participated achieved their personal best.

“We ended up with 18 guys power cleaning over 300, which was better than we thought,” Gonzales said of the players who achieved that feat since January. “Our team record when we were here before was 41, so we made a dent. We got a long way to go. It just shows how far we have to go to get where I think we can be.”

UNM, which went 2-5 in 2020, didn’t have much weight training throughout last year because of the pandemic. When the Lobos relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada, they did not ship their weights to their hotel. But they have increased strength greatly since January, Gonzales and UNM strength and conditioning coach Jimmy Carson said.

“We have just gotten stronger,” said Carson, the emcee of Tuesday’s event. “The guys have done a great job of pushing themselves. I gave them a really hard program to follow and they’re responding.”

Carson used 5-foot-11, 185-pound cornerback Corey Hightower as an example of the increased strength. Hightower, a super senior, showed how super he is at the Night of Champions. He upped his max 25 pounds in the power clean, getting up to 300 pounds. Hightower had told coaches he wanted to get to 285 pounds on Tuesday.

“(Defensive end) Ben Bertram getting 350 on the power clean, anyone that cleans 350 is big time,” Carson said. “That’s really good.”

Gonzales wanted to have the Night of Champions last year, but the pandemic wiped out half of the Lobos’ spring practices and any chance of having the team weightlifting event.

Gonzales believes reviving traditions like the Night of Champions will only help the team, which will open the season Sept. 2 at home against Houston Baptist.

“I’m really happy with where we are with our offseason,” Gonzales said. “Now we got to get into playing shape and be ready to go in August.”

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