Rio Rancho High School varsity boys basketball coach Wally Salata may be the best example of listening to the late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano’s advice: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
Had Salata decided to pack it in years ago, he would never have won a state championship as the Rams coach six years ago — nor claim his 300th coaching victory, which he did the evening of Feb. 18.
It got him a water shower from his players after he entered the locker room at Cleveland High, where the Rams ended their 12-game losing streak to the stumbling Storm, 74-48.
“At the beginning of the year, I told the kids that was my personal goal, and some of them knew I was close,” Salata said after the memorable W.
“I never thought the basketball gods would say, ‘Do it on a night where we haven’t beaten Cleveland in four years,’” he said.
That skid — a dozen straight losses to the Storm — “was a chip the first year and then it was a monkey, then it got to be a gorilla, and then it was a big boulder on our backs, and I’m glad that was knocked off.
“To win by 26? I never expected that.”
The Rams’ win gave them a tie for second place in District 1-5A, although the tie-breaker formula gave Atrisco Heritage second place for the district tournament, with the Rams given the third slot.
“A tie for second is a lot better than a third (place finish),” Salata said, expecting as well as hopeful of a 6 seed for the state tournament. Of course, the year the Rams won it all for Salata, they went into the state tournament as the 11 seed. “We should get a home game.”
Where it began
Salata basically grew up in Rio Rancho, where his parents, Michael and Pauline, moved the growing family from New York. He spent a lot of time learning the game from his dad in the gym at St. Mary’s School in downtown Albuquerque.
From a story in Varsity Sports Magazine back in 2005 (written by me), Salata was cut twice in his days with the Sartans, “once as a sophomore, once as a senior during the summer; I never started a high school game,” he recalled.
In fact, Salata began the 1981-82 season as the Sartans’ 13th man, then “made it all the way to sixth man … I believe I was the first player to come off the bench and win All-State (first-team, at the state tournament) honors.”
Downplaying his ability, Salata continued, “I averaged 5.0 points, maybe 3.0 rebounds; I wasn’t a big threat. (So) it’s easy for me to make cuts more so than other coaches because I’ve been through it. I can discuss it with kids. Every school I’ve been to I’ve had to cut … it’s a hard day for me. If kids want it bad enough, they’ll do what they need to do to make it next year.”
In the fall of 1982, Salata thought his “next year” would be playing at New Mexico Highlands, where he learned the hard truth: After six weeks of tryouts, along with two-dozen other Cowboys hopefuls, Salata was told he was the 22nd player in the bunch.
He never gave up the dream, playing AAU basketball, spending time at Fresno Pacific, playing in Mexico and then starting his coaching career at Los Lunas High School in 1996.
His first victory was in Gallup, where the Tigers beat the Bengals, 64-55, on Dec. 10, 1996.
Salata was at Los Lunas for four seasons (1996-2000; 32 wins, 60 losses), followed by stints at St. Pius X (2001-03; 32-15) and Rio Grande (2005-09; 51-62). He notched his 100th victory while leading the Ravens.
When former Rams coach Brian Smith decided to start the program at Cleveland High in 2009, Salata successfully applied for the vacancy at RRHS, where he’s been ever since.
Victory 200 for Salata was with the Rams, a 70-50 win over West Mesa on Jan. 5, 2016.
Through Thursday’s District 1-5A semifinal loss at Atrisco Heritage Academy, Salata is 186-173 in his 13 seasons with the Rams.
Ironically, after Smith departed for the West Coast, he also was succeeded by a former Rio Grande coach, Sean Jimenez, a Ravens alum (Class of 1996) who is on pace to notch his 200th career win next season.
Like Smith, he also had coaching experience at Rio Rancho — he has three championship rings earned with Rams teams: He was an assistant to Smith when the Rams won their first hoops championship in 2007, then as a baseball assistant to Ron Murphy when they won baseball titles in 2007 and ’09.
More irony? In Jimenez’s last season with the Ravens, their season ended with a quarterfinal loss to the Storm in The Pit.