With the year having come to a close, it’s time to take a look back at some of Valencia County’s biggest sports stories from 2019.
There were plenty of highs, particularly for the three state champions — the Los Lunas girls basketball, boys soccer and the Valencia cheer teams.
For everyone else, 2020 is a fresh chance at claiming a blue trophy. Here are some of the stories that defined 2019.
1. LL boys soccer claims first state title since 1983
The Los Lunas boys soccer team completed a journey that began at the state semi-finals in 2018 with their 2-1 win over the Los Alamos Hilltoppers in the state championship game at the Bernalillo Soccer Complex in November.
The Tigers were led by senior Bryan Tarango, who scored both goals for LLHS in the game, and freshman goalkeeper Pedro Zarraga, whose performance a day after being knocked out of the semifinal game with an injury earned him MVP chants from the crowd as well as his teammates.
Tarango got the Tigers in front early as he converted a penalty in the first half to put LLHS up 1-0.
The Tigers held their lead through halftime and a large part of the second half, but things took a turn for the worse when senior striker Jordan Arballo, the Tigers leading goal-scorer, was sent off for picking up the ball before it had gone out of play for a throw in.
Following that, the Hilltoppers were able to equalize and appeared poised to force overtime.
That was when Tarango, playing off of a through ball from midfielder Memo Lobato, stunned LAHS by answering right back with a goal of his own to put the Tigers up 2-1 and secure the championship.
LLHS won’t have a chance to defend their title at the 4A level as the school is moving up to 5A in 2020, where the Tigers will be in the same district as defending 5A champion Albuquerque High.
2. LL girls basketball repeat as state champions
The Lady Tigers brought home yet another blue trophy back to Los Lunas High School, marking their fourth state basketball title since 2013.
Los Lunas (28-3, 8-0) began their championship weekend with a 70-47 quarterfinal win over Gallup before defeating Kirtland Central in the championship game, 49-43. The win over the Broncos avenged a loss earlier in the season and gave the Lady Tigers back-to-back championships.
Sophomore Natalie Jojola led all scorers with 28 points, over half the Tigers offensive output.
“This team is so different from the last two seasons,” said head coach Marty Zeller. “These girls just get after it. I’m so happy for the seniors and our rebuilding nine players. I’m so, so proud of them.”
LLHS returned nine players from last years squad to this year’s team that will attempt to pull off the three-peat. Currently, the Tigers are sitting at 7-4 and are ranked fifth in Class 4A after a consolation championship at the Alamogordo holiday tournament.
3. VHS cheer wins second state championship
Valencia High School cheerleaders placed first at the New Mexico Spirit State Championship in the 4A class with 185.95 total points. Belen placed sixth in the 4A class, while Los Lunas came in at third place in the 4A co-ed cheerleading category.
“The most memorable part of the weekend was noting that the confidence I worked to instill in each athlete this season was very visible out on those 9 mats,” said Valencia head coach Alexis Montano. “Knowing that I was able to make them believe in themselves and their teammates is more of a win for me than anything else.”
The Jaguars ran away with the title on the second day of competition to add to the title that the team won in 2017.
In 2018, the group finished second. The championships were held at Dreamstyle Arena in Albuquerque in April.
Competition for the 2020 season is underway and will come to Valencia County in February with the Heart of Gold competition at Los Lunas High School.
4. LL football falls to Roswell in state championship
For the second year in a row, the Los Lunas Tigers fell to Roswell in the state championship game. This time, the Tigers were within a touchdown of claiming the blue trophy before they ultimately fell short, 25-19.
LLHS executed their game plan the way that head coach Jeremy Maupin had wanted, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Coyotes, who finished the year 13-0 and were ranked as the best team in the state by MaxPreps, claimed their second straight title.
The Tigers had three first quarter turnovers, which prevented them from getting any early momentum going and allowed the Coyotes to jump out to a lead, though the LLHS defense did a good job of limiting the damage given the unfavorable situations that it was put in.
When the Tigers offense finally found its footing in the second quarter, they were able to come right back and take a 12-10 lead into halftime thanks to some strong play from running back Derek Chavez and senior quarterback Kade Benavidez.
In the second half, defense dominated on both sides, as the Coyotes scored the only touchdown of the third quarter to go up 17-12.
In the final quarter, Roswell went up 25-12 with less than five minutes remaining before the Tigers answered back with a touchdown drive that took barely more than a minute off the clock.
After the Tiger defense got a stop, LLHS got the ball back with more than a minute left and a chance to win or tie the game. However, the Tigers were unable to convert on fourth down when Benavidez threw an interception and gave the Coyotes the chance to ice the game.
Maupin wants the program to be one that competes for state championships every season, and the Tigers staying power will be tested next season as 27 seniors graduate off of this year’s team.
5. Greg Henington resigns as Belen head football coach
Greg Henington resigned as the head football coach at BHS in April after three years leading the program to become the offensive coordinator at Eldorado High School in Albuquerque.
“It was a very tough decision because of how I feel about the kids and the community,” said Henington when his resignation was announced. “However, they have been extremely supportive.”
Henington led the team to a 7-5 record and a district runner-up spot in his final season in 2018. The highlight of his tenure was taking the Eagles to the state championship game in 2017, where they fell to Artesia 48-14 and finished the season with a 12-1 record.
In three seasons, the Eagles went 27-9 under his watch. The BHS players were surprised to see him leave, but understood that he was doing what he thought was best for his family.
Eldorado finished the season with a 6-5 record and fell to La Cueva 41-27 in the first round of the 6A playoffs.
6. Ty House takes over the Belen football program
Ty House took over the BHS football program in late April after being hired to replace Henington.
He served as an assistant at Hobbs High School, his alma mater, for seven years prior to taking the job leading the Eagles. During his time as an assistant, he primarily worked with the secondary and was responsible designing coverages.
As a player, he was a wide receiver, so he came in familiar with the work on both sides of the ball.
In his first season at Belen, House led the team to a 3-8 record, 2-1 in district. The Eagles finished second in the district behind Los Lunas and were the final team into the playoffs with the No. 12 seed, where they fell to Deming in the first round.
House’s first season was marred with injuries, including to starting quarterback Luke Aragon.
He believes the team is set up well for the future with many of the team’s top playmakers returning, including running back Anthony Roybal.
While House didn’t completely overhaul the program, he said many of the errors the team suffered from this season should be helped with a full offseason program and another year working with the specific playbooks for his system.
7. New Mexico mini bullriders compete in Las Vegas
At the beginning of December, 13 kids from across New Mexico traveled to Las Vegas, Nev., to compete in the International Mini Bullriders Association World Finals at the Plaza Hotel.
The New Mexico chapter of the organization was started this year, and is run by Ruben and Cathy Valenzuela of Belen. The couple raise mini bucking bulls as well, and had 26 of their bulls compete in Las Vegas.
Travis Wimberly was the top finisher of the New Mexico contingent with a third place finish in the super senior category while Caleb Griego finished 10th. In the seniors category, Joe Clements finished in fifth place.
The peewee group had New Mexico riders Jace Wild Green, Sammy Lyle and Lane Valenzuela finish in 12, 16 and 17th places, respectively. In the walk trot category for riders five and under, Brayden Coche finished 16th.
Prior to their departure, the organization held a fundraiser to help the riders cover the costs of traveling to and competing in Las Vegas.
8. Los Lunas to move to 5A in all sports; Valencia football drops to 4A
The three Valencia County schools will no longer play in the same district in all sports beginning in the 2020-21 school year.
The Tigers will be moving up to 5A in all sports except for football, which already competes at the 5A level due to a growth in enrollment at the school.
Meanwhile, across the Rio Grande, Valencia’s football team, which has been competing at the 5A level alongside Belen and Los Lunas, is moving down due to a drop in enrollment. Beginning next school year, the Jaguars will compete in 4A in all sports.
As for Belen, their status as a school that plays in 5A for football only and 4A for everything else will not change.
Going forward, the Tigers will compete it 5A-5 alongside Albuquerque High, Capital, Manzano, Rio Grande and Santa Fe in all sports except football. In football, LLHS and BHS will continue in the same district, joined now by Del Norte, Highland and Valley.
Meanwhile, Valencia will compete against Albuquerque Academy, Bernalillo, Grants and St. Pius in football. The Jags will join Belen alongside Grants, Highland, and St. Pius in all other sports.
The Tigers new district should pose a more challenging task for the LLHS teams that have been among the most successful in the state at the 4A level, such as girls basketball.
LLHS moved up because the school enrollment has crossed the threshold for 5A in all other sports, which is a minimum of 1,300 students.
Meanwhile, Valencia dropped below the 1,000 students required for 5A football.
Belen’s enrollment numbers have remained fairly consistent over the last five years and again place them in the 1,000-1,300 student range required to play at 5A in football and 4A elsewhere.
9. Chavez finishes in the top 10 at State Cross Country Championships
Valencia High School senior Raquel Chavez finished her cross country career on a high note at the state championships in November at Rio Rancho High School, coming in tenth place overall in Class 4A with a time of 19:39, a pace of 6:20 per mile.
Chavez was the district champion as well, a title she won in dominating fashion, more than 50 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher to earn individual qualification for the state championships. Valencia did not qualify a team.
Chavez was voted the Best Current High School Female Athlete in the Best of Valencia County contest, and will run collegiality at Division II West Texas A&M in Canyon, Texas.
The Lady Buffs compete in the Lonestar Conference alongside Eastern New Mexico and have a rich tradition in cross country.
10. Belen girls tennis dominates district play
The Belen girls tennis team tore through the district last spring, finishing with a record of 23-4, 6-0 in district behind individual district champion Roma Cordova.
The Valencia girls placed fourth, while Los Lunas placed sixth.The Belen boys team placed second in the district, while Valencia and Los Lunas came in fourth and fifth, respectively.
The Eagles qualified William Chavez and Cordova for the state tournament as singles players, while doubles teams of Riley Cordova and Isabella Jaramillo and Madison Good and Sidney Shawver also qualified and earned valuable experience at the state tournament.
As a team, the Belen girls only lost 52 matches all season, earning seven first place finishes and only one second place finish through the season.