RIO RANCHO — Let’s clear this up at the start: Robert Garza’s skill set dwarfs that of Nate Pino.
“I don’t like to brag,” Garza said, “but I’m gonna have to take that one.”
This declaration comes with a laugh. This is, after all, just slow-pitch softball.
“I remember hitting a few more home runs than he did,” Garza did.
Pino and Garza once were on the same faculty at Rio Rancho Mid High (now Middle School), and they were even briefly teammates in a recreation softball league. But their current dynamic is sure to have New Mexico’s prep football community closely eyeballing their progress this fall.
Garza, 38, is the new head football coach at Cleveland High School. Pino, 40, is the new head coach at rival Rio Rancho High.
Not only did the state’s two most definitive alpha programs change coaches in the same offseason, which is unusual enough, they both are doing so after having met in the most recent two Class 6A state championship games.
New drivers, yes. But tasked with preserving an elite status quo.
“They’ve got a good thing going there,” Pino said of Cleveland and Garza. “I was the first to congratulate him when he got that job, and on the flip side, he was one of the first to congratulate me when I got promoted.”
The stars aligned for change when Heath Ridenour resigned from Cleveland to take a job on Danny Gonzales’ coaching staff at the University of New Mexico, and Gerry Pannoni resigned at Rio Rancho to move back to Virginia. Both schools promoted from within — and quickly. Garza was named as Ridenour’s successor within 24 hours; Pino was announced just a few hours after Pannoni resigned.
Garza and Pino have been in on the ground floor at their schools from the start.
Pino played for the Rams’ first head coach, Bill Moon, and later served as an assistant under all the subsequent Rio Rancho head coaches.
Garza coached first with Kirk Potter, and then Ridenour. The Storm made its varsity debut in 2009.
It was 2008 when Pino and Garza taught at Rio Rancho Mid High, which is an approximate midway point between the two high schools.
The 2022 season officially begins on Monday morning with the first day of practices.
In the period from 2011-21, Cleveland and Rio Rancho have combined for eight state championship game appearances and five blue trophies.
This is not the first time Cleveland has made a coaching change following a title. The Storm segued from Potter to Ridenour after Cleveland went unbeaten in 2011.
And it is Cleveland, which has been in the state final three straight (full) seasons, showing the way for the chasing pack at the moment.
“It goes all the way back to all the administrative support, just the things they’ve allowed us to do, and supporting us with what we need,” said Garza, who played his high school football a few miles away from Lubbock, Texas.
Naturally, the deep talent pool, and the pipeline created to nurture athletes, also contributes heavily to the Storm’s — and Rams’ — gaudy results.
“A great example I could give you is having a second JV team, what we call our ‘Silver’ team, more of a sophomore team,” Garza explained. “It’s just been the ability to develop players. These are kids that we’d have standing on the sideline if we had one JV team. I can look back to our state championship season last year, and I can name three or four guys off the top of my head that played on that ‘Silver’ team.”
Ridenour enjoyed extraordinary success at Cleveland, going 96-18 in his 10 seasons (2012-21), with 6A titles in 2015, 2019 and 2021. There very well may have been a fourth in 2020 had the pandemic not erased that season.
For Pino and Garza, this is their first varsity head coaching job in football, and the question naturally arises about whether there is a pressing need to alter their philosophical approaches now that they’ve been vaulted into the No. 1 chair.
“You know, when I first got the job, it was something I thought a lot about,” Garza said. “Am I gonna have to change what I do? And to an extent, I do have more of a vocal role now.
“But I need to just go out and be me.”
Pino, who served as Pannoni’s offensive coordinator last season, is on the same page.
“I stick with who I am,” he said. “David Howes (former Rio Rancho coach who, like Ridenour, resigned and is now a Lobo assistant coach) did a good job of establishing a championship culture, and Gerry did a good job of continuing that. Both those guys put a big emphasis on being blue-collar guys and being everyday people. We’ve done that, and that’s what gives us a chance to be successful every year.”
Cleveland and Rio Rancho will close the regular season against each other on Friday, Oct. 28.
The Storm is clearly a preseason No. 1, even as it tackles an arduous nondistrict schedule that includes Centennial (the season and home opener, on Aug. 19), Artesia, La Cueva and two trips to West Texas plus a visit to Las Cruces High.
The Rams open Aug. 19 at home against La Cueva, which could emerge as Albuquerque’s top 6A contender.
Previous groups have already laid the groundwork at both schools, and the continuing onus is to maintain that status as collective kings of the hill.
“A big part of it is, there is a lot of growth in Rio Rancho,” Pino said. “You can’t turn your eye to that. They say a high tide raises all boats; the fact that we’ve both been successful has elevated each other, I feel.”
By enrollment, these are two of the largest five high schools in the state, with stellar participation numbers. It is no surprise that UNM has made efforts to pluck many of the Division I-caliber athletes from both programs over the last handful of years. The impressive winning percentages, however, escape a firm definition.
“That’s a tough one,” Garza said. “Heath talked a lot about culture. These kids are excited to be a part of what we’ve done. You could see it at our youth camp this year. We had 150 kids, and they’re excited to be a part of this, from the second grade on. They’re thinking, ‘I can’t wait to be a Cleveland Storm.’ I grew up in a small West Texas town (Idalou). From the day I started kindergarten, I couldn’t wait to be a varsity football player.”
Cleveland burst onto the scene by winning state in just its third season (2011), a shockingly rapid ascension for a new school.
“Thinking back on it, I think after that 2010 season, I felt like we had an opportunity to win it all, after seeing what we were capable of that year,” Garza said. “We were that close. But I think (2010) defined what we could be, the potential that is here. That’s why coach Potter took the job. We thought, ‘Hey, we could be here to stay.’ ”
Rio Rancho won championships in 2014 and 2016 and of late has managed to clear every hurdle except the one just to its north. That challange continues with Pino, a forever Ram.
“We’ve established a culture,” Pino said. “For ourselves, our kids. There is a standard. They understand what it takes year to year. We have an expectation, and that is huge for us.”
And beyond the competitive nature of the rivalry, Pino said he and Garza share much in common as their coaching profiles gain in stature.
“We’re professionals,” he said. “At the end of the day, there is mutual respect there. There is definitely a heated competition between the two of us, but you go back to Dave and Heath, and you want to compete and win blue trophies and all that stuff, but we’re both doing the same thing. We’re both in the same community. And we’re both trying to build men.”
Official practices begin Monday; scrimmages week of Aug. 8; Week 1 openers Aug. 18-20