After a quarter of a century as an educator with Rio Rancho Public Schools, Patrick Puentes decided to retire.

He turned in his keys to his classroom at Rio Rancho High School on June 29, saying simply, “I made it official.”

Part of his reasoning that it was time to retire was because he’d gotten a taste of retirement while recuperating from “a total knee replacement in November. … The recovery was pretty brutal — it gave me a taste of what retirement was like.”

Another factor in his decision was the current state of affairs.

“During this COVID time, when we were doing online teaching, it just wasn’t the same for me — I need the interaction of the classroom,” he said. “I want to interact with the kids, and with this blended instruction? I’m a creature of habit.”

He’ll remain a creature of habit in the coming basketball season. A former head coach of the RRHS girls team (2009-15), in recent seasons Puentes was an assistant to his cousin, West Mesa High School’s varsity girls head coach, Manny Otero.

A 1997 graduate of Cobre High School in Bayard, N.M., Puentes said when he was a lad, “I was like every other kid — I wanted to be a professional athlete. I fought fires in Montana as a teen; (my brother) Michael worked (as a firefighter) in the Gila. I thought I had found my niche there, being in the outdoors.

“Then I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I found myself coming back to the kids and sports and coaching,” he said.

His first teaching position with Rio Rancho Public Schools was at the original Puesta del Sol Elementary, and then at PdS’s new location; he went to teach at RRHS for a year, then was at Rio Rancho Mid-High (currently Rio Rancho Middle School) when it opened in 2002, and then bounced back to RRHS.

“I was in Mr. Puentes’ first- and second-grade classes at Puesta del Sol and know we were in some of the first classes he taught,” recalled Erica (Lizon) Gonzales. “He could’ve been my ninth-grade teacher also, but I wasn’t assigned to him for my Pathfinders class. He was my favorite teacher and I was really young so I don’t remember specific events but I remember him always being positive and encouraging.

“It makes me think of the quote from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Another former player of his, Christina (Sexson) Twyeffort, said Puentes was a big influence on her direction in life.

“As far as impact on my life, Coach P had a huge impact on my life,” she said. “Coach P and his family have become a part of my family. His passionate personality is infectious. As a student and player I wanted to do well because he believed in me. I knew when I became a teacher, I wanted to be just like Coach P — kind, patient, motivating and heartfelt.”

Puentes was working at PdS when he began assisting RRHS’s original girls basketball coach, Bob McIntyre, and he was named to succeed McIntyre when he retired following the 2008-09 season.

“That’s one of the reasons I left Puesta; I was already coaching and it was hard for me to be in two places,” he said.

It wasn’t the best time to take over the program: Cleveland High School had just opened, and the rams lost several players, because of where they resided, to the new Storm.

“I knew what I was getting into,” Puentes later said. “It was tough; I won’t lie.”

In Puentes’ six seasons at the helm, the Rams went 56-112 and qualified for the postseason five times, but never received better than a 10 seed and lost first-round games at Mayfield (three times), Eldorado and Hobbs.

In Puentes’ final hurrah, the Rams appeared headed for a third-place district finish, only to be upset at Cleveland and be relegated to fourth place, and then lost their next game to the visiting Storm in the district tournament. The season came to a close in the first-round of the state tournament, a 37-34 loss at No. 3 Mayfield.

“It was kind of a mutual agreement,” Puentes said then of his decision to resign. “I feel good about what I’ve done, taking the team to the state tournament five years in a row. (But) I have a granddaughter I’ve never seen.”

Despite the losing seasons, Puentes enjoyed coaching, always happy to be working with youngsters — and two of his players were his daughters, Stevie and Talisa; Stevie lives in San Antonio, Texas, and has two children, while Talisa later married a Rams four-time state wrestling champ, Matt Ortega, and is a wildlife biologist for the Department of Agriculture in Albuquerque.

Coaching highlights? “Being on the bench with Bobby Mac, watching some of the great players that came through there,” he said. “(And) being able to coach my kids there, plus watching my nephew, Salvador(a Rams two-sport standout). And some of those great (girls basketball) Gallup match-ups with (GHS coach) John Lomasney. Just the coaching fraternity, the friendships. (Mayfield coach) George Maya is a great friend.”

Puentes is proud of his commitment to RRPS.

“There was a time when opportunities presented themselves,” he said, remaining true to RRPS. “I have the community and people I work with, which have kept me grounded here. I’ve made long-time friendships — I wouldn’t have changed it at all.”

He’s happiest when he sees former students and basketball players, such as “seeing first-graders I had, they’re teaching, out in the community giving back. That’s one of the things I love,” he said. “I can’t believe I taught 25 years — to me, it was an eon — but the environment I was in made it easy for me to stick around.”

Puentes said he’ll remain on the bench with Otero and the Mustangs “for a couple more years; it’s kept me attached to kids. It’s hard to leave family; Manny’s a cousin.”

Now, at least until basketball practices start, Puentes will enjoy his home life with his wife, Fala, and getting out to fly fish every chance he gets — his love for the outdoors that began when he battled wildfires in Big Sky Country hasn’t left him.

“It’s my therapy,” he said, adding, “One thing I hope to see is the person who replaces me has the love and the passion.”

Rams coach Patrick Puentes chats with Alicia Herrera, a team captain in her senior season of 2012-13.