The high school basketball season for Rio Rancho’s varsity boys teams ended March 5 in the Round of 16, when the 11th-seeded Cleveland High boys lost in Los Lunas and the seventh-seeded Rams lost at home to Carlsbad.

Three months later, their head coaches seem more than ready to get their teams back on the hardwood, as they’ve been seeing progress already through open gyms, tournaments and camps – including the San Diego State camp, where CHS coach Sean Jimenez took his players in early June.

Rams coach Wally Salata, left, and Storm coach Sean Jimenez were masked before their Feb. 1 meeting in the RAC, but you can tell they’re smiling anyway. (Herron photo)

Rio Rancho Rams

Wally Salata’s latest season – his 13th at the helm of the RRHS boys basketball program – ended after a 49-47 loss, which could have ended in the Rams’ favor if Mikey Wood’s buzzer-beating 3-point shot had fallen through the rim instead of off it.

Salata’s second home is the Rams Athletic Center, where he recently oversaw more than 100 young campers honing their hoops skills.

In his fourth decade as a high school coach, and — following stints of four or fewer years at, in order, Los Lunas, St. Pius X and Rio Grande – Salata has the Rams’ program back on track.

Sure, it took a while: The Rams had losing records his first five seasons, the first of which coincided with the opening of Cleveland High. Through those first five campaigns, the Rams were 52-81.

They haven’t had a losing record since that fateful fifth season, 2013-14, and after a 23-9 mark in 2014-15, went 19-12 and won the state championship in 2015-16, despite entering the 16-team tournament as the 11 seed.

This past season, which ended in two losses, he earned his 300th career coaching victory at Cleveland High School. Entering the 2022-23 season, his coaching log reads 301-311.

The 2022-23 team – albeit without its two returning “bigs,” Austin Ford and Maddox Presser – went 2-2 in the New Mexico Games, and has small tournaments coming up in Santa Fe, Las Cruces and at Sandia Prep.

Salata also has had his players working youth camps, knowing someday some of those youngsters will be playing for him as Rams.

Cleveland Storm

Jimenez also found time to chat during a youth camp in his gym, fondly known as the Thunderdome.

He had at least 40 kids at his June 6-9 camp.

Jimenez’s venture to San Diego marked the fifth time he’d had the Storm at the SDSU team camp, mainly because he’s a longtime friend of Aztecs head coach Brian Dutcher.

“We went 2-3; two of the losses were close games,” Jimenez said. “One, we lost by 25 to one of California’s better teams, La Casa Canyon. We played hard.”

Why go to San Diego, he was asked.

“When we go on the road, we go there for seven days. We play three of the days, but we do practices, we go to the beach and just build team chemistry, these kids getting to know each other.”

That team bonding concept is important, he said.

“The year before, we lost a lot of kids from our state championship. So now, we’re trying to mold our group together, which didn’t know each other and wasn’t able to play in tournaments outside the state (during the pandemic), and so I think by going to those tournaments we build our team chemistry and just how/where kids like the ball on the court.

“This is an under-rated thing in basketball,” he explained. “Last year, our guys didn’t know: Do you want to go to the 3? Do you want to run to the rim? And it was kind of a feeling-out process. So going to San Diego, those are games to get in; we go to the rec center and play against grown men, we play on the beach. They have to stay with each other for seven straight days, so it’s Cleveland Storm varsity for seven straight days, 24 hours a day.”

He also reported his team beat visiting La Cueva in a summer league came on June 6.

“La Cueva’s supposed to be one of the top two teams in the state next year,” he added, happy to see his team beat the Bears.

Although the Storm didn’t play in the end-of-may New Mexico Games, they’re headed to the Sandia Prep camp and then to Phoenix.

Although the Storm lost two seniors (Cole Savage and Antonio Avila), another talented player (Elijah Brody) is headed to West Mesa, where his father, Landrick Brody, is the Mustangs’ new football coach.

“Let me tell you this: Our C team has five kids who are 6-5 or taller; you put them next to our varsity, you’d think they’re our varsity.”

Looking ahead, he says, “We’re gonna have a lot more fight in us. We’re going to have more team chemistry. We’re going to understand each other better.”

Jimenez’s take: “Coaches’ game times are our practice times; that’s where we win. The games, the players win. We let them execute – obviously, you do your adjustments,” he said. “But this is a players’ game: I think coaches get way too much credit for wins and way too much blame for the losses. And that’s the nature of the beast.

“We’re gonna be small: Our biggest kid is Josiah, who’s 6-3 – so we’ve got to play fast, we’ve got to play physical and we’ve got to rebound.”

Want to see some hoops?

“Wally and I are hosting the City of Vision Tournament (June 30-July 2). We have about 40 teams in it,” he said.

That will be a round-robin type of format, without a bracket and each team getting six games, with no trophies handed out.

“We had a real good turnout last year and we expect a good turnout this year.”

Watch coming editions of the Observer for details on games, times and places.