Karli Salazar needed a fresh start, as a volleyball coach and as a grieving parent.
Salazar, a 2011 Española Valley graduate and the former interim head coach at New Mexico Highlands University, will continue her coaching career across the state border — but still close enough to home for her liking.
Trinidad State Junior College in Trinidad, Colo., announced Tuesday the hiring of Salazar to guide the volleyball program in 2020.
Salazar was the interim coach at Highlands after Dwight Combs resigned early in the 2019 season, and she guided the Cowgirls to a 1-25 record.
Salazar said she accepted Trinidad’s job offer two weeks ago and has already been hard at work finishing the recruiting class.
She replaces Melissa Hardmen, who left the program after five seasons to take an assistant position at Adams State University. Trinidad State went 8-24 in 2019.
This is the first collegiate head coaching position for Salazar, who was head coach at West Las Vegas for the 2014 season and led the Lady Dons to an 18-5 record.
“I want to get into the head coaching realm, so that was a big thing for me,” Salazar said. “It’s also close to home, to where I can still see my family. And it’s really important for me to be able to come home to Vegas.”
It has been a trying four months for Salazar and her boyfriend, Highlands sports information director Justin Bustos. The couple lost their daughter, Haleigh Mary Bustos, who died suddenly Jan. 13 in their Las Vegas, N.M., home. A couple of months later, Highlands hired Tom Duke to take over the volleyball program and Salazar was not retained by the school. Then, Bustos suffered a variety of injuries after he was involved in an ATV accident last month.
Getting a chance to coach at Trinidad gives Salazar a chance to move ahead with her career while staying close to Las Vegas, so she’ll be able to visit her daughter’s grave.
“I needed a fresh start,” Salazar said. “It’s hard to be in Vegas right now for us after Haleigh. I think that was the main reason. I just needed to not be in our house, not be in this environment because it’s hard. It’s also bittersweet because it’s going to be a lot harder leaving. If we had Haleigh and we could leave, this town wouldn’t be as meaningful to me as it is.”
Salazar will get a taste of coaching at the junior college level. Her experience at Highlands and West Las Vegas allowed her to oversee players for a four-year span, but now she will get players for only one or two years. Salazar said the challenge will be to develop a strong team while also helping players move on to a four-year program.
“At Highlands, you are preparing them to be the best team as a unit,” Salazar said. “Here, it’s a two-for-one: You’re trying to create the best team in Trinidad and also trying to get them marketable. It’s going to be nice to push them to get better. A big difference is that they won’t get complacent. At Highlands, for a lot of them, their dream is to play collegiate volleyball. Then you have to get them focused on bettering the program.”
The fresh start also gives Salazar a chance to create a program that fits her vision. When she took over for Combs after the opening weekend of the season in September, Salazar said it was hard to go from a supporting role to running the program because of the relationships she built with the Cowgirls.
“For all of us, it was difficult for me to transition into that role,” Salazar said. “It will be nice to start off fresh. I’ll be able to only view me as their head coach, whereas before, I was kind of the go-to. If they had any academic issues or if they needed to enroll or had housing issues, I was that person they went to right away. If they wanted to ask the head coach a question, they asked me first and I would tell them what I thought.”
Now, Salazar gets to use a new voice to go with her new home.