Stephen Burns made a promise to his Santa Fe High wrestlers when he started at the school in 2014.
“I told them that they’ll never be undefeated as long as I’m around,” said Burns, the Demons’ third year head coach.
The intent was not to insult, but to demonstrate his philosophy as a coach. Burns looks high and low to find tough tournaments and competition for his Demons throughout the year, be it in or out of the state. So, Santa Fe High has gone to Garden City, Kan., for the Rocky Welton Classic and to the Warrior Classic in Grand Junction, Colo., as well as the Rio Rancho Cleveland Storm Invitational.
“What I mean is to reach out and find the hardest competition you can get to make you better,” Burns said.
The results are hard to ignore. Santa Fe High enters the Class 6A State Wrestling Championships in the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho on Friday with three wrestlers seeded No. 1 in their respective weight classes, and another, state champion Sammy Martinez, at No. 2 in a very competitive 145-pound class. Oh, and none of them are undefeated.
“I know we have gotten better pretty fast, because we were not that good for a while,” said Santa Fe High freshman Miguel Padilla, who is the top seed at 113 pounds. “But we have improved a lot as a team over the last couple of years.”
The combination of a driven and passionate coach and a hungry group of wrestlers led to a quick rise through the 6A ranks for Santa Fe High. Last year, the Demons took seventh place in the 6A team standings with 119 points in just the second full season under Burns, who took over the program in the latter part of the 2015 season. This year could see the Demons challenge to finish in the top five, and possibly a podium finish.
It’s a different kind of atmosphere in the Demons’ wrestling room.
Burns, though, would rather focus on Friday than on Saturday night.
“I just want to focus on one match at a time,” Burns said. “One kid at a time, maybe bring home some medals. If we get a team trophy in there, that’s great.”
That he’s talking about medals and trophies is a step up from when he joined the program after spending 11 years at Gateway High School in Aurora, Colo. It was the Demons’ first year in 6A after spending the past four years in 4A. Burns heard the pessimistic talk that permeated the hallways and locker rooms at the school.
“As soon as I walked in, everyone was saying, ‘We can’t compete in 6-A, we’ll never be able to do this with Rio Rancho in the way,’ ” Burns said. “I came from a program that I built up in Colorado. We weren’t a very good program, but I know what you put in is what you get out.”
What Burns put in was a lot of time and effort, whether it was coordinating fundraisers to help pay for for summer camps and out-of-state in-season tournaments, or spending extra time with a wrestler after practice. His workmanlike attitude rubbed off on the Demons.
“He’s really outspoken and not afraid to tell you what you need to work on and what you’re doing wrong,” Martinez said. “He wants this group to succeed and he’ll do whatever he can to help you get there.”
Still, it’s a two way street. Burns said this year’s squad could have challenged for a state title, but some wrestlers let because of ineligibility or other reasons, which put a dent in those hopes. But he’s satisfied with the group of 12 qualifiers he has going to Rio Rancho.
“Ninety percent of coaching is managing 15, 20 personalities,” Burns said. “Sometimes, that doesn’t work out so great, and sometimes you need to cut some people who might be good, but are bad apples. … I think we are a strong team anyways, and we’ve got our horses in the right spots.”
Padilla, Isaac Beltran (at 120) and Isaiah Martinez (at 172) are the top seeds in their weight classes, while Sammy Martinez, who won a state title at 132, is among three state champions in the 145 bracket. Burns feels it is the toughest weight class in the state because of that.
Sammy Martinez relishes it.
“I like because it will be a challenge,” Sammy Martinez said. “It will show me where you are on the podium. We’ll see how everything turns outs. I’m really planning on coming out aggressive and be on my game and make a statement.”
As for Burns’ philosophy, its merits can be found in Padilla’s top seed. Even though he is 34-8, five of those losses came when he was wrestling at 120 pounds, and only one at 113 came in-state — a 9-7 loss to Albuquerque Del Norte’s Frankie Baca in the finals of the Joe Vivian Classic. Baca is undefeated and the No. 1 seed in the 5A bracket.
“The thing is, with some New Mexico teams, they’ll go and wrestle the same teams four or five times, and to me, you’re not growing,” Burns said. “The first thing I did when I got here was to get out of the state. Now, some of our guys got beat up, but I feel you learn more from a loss than you do by pinning a guy.”
Besides, they don’t distinguish state titles according to records.