RIO RANCHO — There may not be a varsity basketball coach in the entire state of New Mexico that’s been conducting youth camps longer than Wally Salata, the Rams head coach since the 2009-10 season.

Salata said he was expecting as many as 160 youngsters – “the most ever,” Salata said — this week for his third and final five-day camp, after just less than 140 last week.  There are some duplications, though – parents who either want their kids’ skills to improve even more, or just get them out of the house.

A 42-team camp is set for next week, with area varsity teams playing in Cleveland High’s Thunderdome and in the Rams Activities Center.

“Every year for the last 35 years,” Salata said, he’s been conducting camps, including his previous coaching stops at St. Pius X, Los Lunas and Rio Grande.

“The key to his camps’ longevity,” he said, is organization. “We’re always organized; when I’m not organized, when someone else is doing it, it’s kinda weird, especially the K through (grade) 2, because a lot of parents are unsure, with the young ones, how they’re gonna do out here.” Often, he said, the parents fork out dollars for another week’s instruction.

Parents can see for themselves, of course, as they’re accommodated in the first row of the bleachers in the RAC and the auxiliary gym, where the youngest campers learn the game.

Salata, his coaching staff and his varsity players for the coming season provide instruction.

“We do fundamentals and we do games,” he said, “and we give them a (water) break every hour. You can’t go nonstop with kids these days.”

“Championship” games are played on Fridays, the final camp days, and “winners” receive Rams gear. Although not all the youngsters will someday be Rams, enough will, and Salata wants them to remember the experience – especially since he’s a stickler for fundamentals.

He’s learned kids have changed

“Kids spend too much time on their phones; they don’t want to go outside anymore because it’s too hot,” Salata said. “What I tell them here – we set ground rules. We want them to have fun, but at the same time, we’re going to coach them like we coach our high school kids, and one of the things we talked about (recently), was when a coach asks you something, it’s ‘yes sir,’ ‘no sir.’ … They’re not taught the correct way to respond to a teacher, to an adult, to a coach.

“Are they coachable? I think here, like in the calisthenics, it’s pretty structured,” he said. “We don’t have discipline issues; we might have a kid who might push another kid, but for the most part, we’re discipline-free, which is helpful for camps.”

Salata thinks kids are “softer.”

“The game has changed because, one, when I was growing up, we didn’t have all these AAU tournaments,” he said. “We were lucky to maybe have some of them. Now, kids can go anywhere: The better kids are gonna play AAU ball. But the ones that aren’t as good, they don’t have that opportunity, so this is kinda the opportunity for them.

“This camp is not me … There’s two coaches in each gym that are overseeing everything, and we have 16 players that played last year. Each of them has a team,” he explained.

Looking ahead to 2023-24

Of course, every coach has the goal of winning a state championship, which Salata and the Rams accomplished in the 2015-16 season. But one is not enough.

Salata won’t predict he has the horses to play for the blue trophy in The Pit in March, so the immediate goal is set lower — get a first-round home game, win it and play in the quarterfinals in The Pit.

A home game in the first round necessitates a top-eight seed, which the Rams have done the past two seasons, only to lose to the lower-seeded visitor each time. (Carlsbad in 2022 and Atrisco Heritage Academy in 2023; COVID-19 quashed the 2021 state tournament, reducing the postseason field to eight teams, and the Rams were not among it.)

“Our district is loaded again,” he said, rattling off a bunch of returning standouts for Cleveland, two-time defending state champ Volcano Vista and Atrisco Heritage, and an improved Cibola team.

As of June 22, when the Observer visited the camp, the Rams had won eight games in a row this summer, and that included five games by no more than one possession, at a team camp in Artesia.

Victims were Atrisco Heritage (49-48) — the team that ended the ’22-23 season, Los Lunas (47-44) and Hobbs (49-48) in overtime, and Las Cruces (35-34) and Carlsbad (42-39) in regulation.

“Every game ended in one possession, and I’ve never been involved in that before,” he said.  “I tell the kids you can’t simulate that in practice. Did we make mistakes? Yes, but they made more mistakes.”

Two starters have missed time with injury: Jayden Johnson and Kevin Archuleta, “so we have other young guys that are playing. This is building confidence, and it gives coaches an opportunity to evaluate kids at different levels.”

All told, next season’s team will have had 22 games this summer.

“It’s a great took for us to see the kids in action, and we tell them all the time, ‘If you come out and be lazy, that’s in the back of our minds, “You’re a lazy guy; I don’t know if we can keep you.”’

“We have to get better — there are negatives,” he said. “We don’t box out very well, so we gave (our opponents) second-chance points. And, again, we’re struggling at the free throw line. We’ve talked about that a million times, if you don’t go out there and practice free throws, it’s not gonna happen. If we can shoot better free throws, then by winning by two or three, we’re winning by seven, eight points.”

Salata said fans will see a noticeable change in the way the Rams play.

“We don’t have a Maddox Presser, 6-5. The biggest guy we have is 6-3. Size, we don’t have, so we’re going to have to change our defensive philosophy in how we play teams,” he explained. “We’ve got to up-tempo a little bit more, we’ve been doing this up-tempo since the start of the summer, and the kids are actually picking up on it. We’re holding teams under 50 (points), but we’ve been playing 90 feet, make or miss. So there are a lot of positives I’ve been seeing.”

The Rams also – as of now – lack a point guard, with the graduation of Jamal Bynum, and Salata joked it’ll be a case of doing it “by committee — whoever gets the rebound takes it up the court.”

The Rams open the ’23-24 season Dec. 2 at The Rock in Clovis.