AZ’s Sahuarita High winning wrestling titles, promoting sport

Updated: June 10, 2024

Photos: The Sahuarita High School wrestling program has won the last three Arizona state championships. Bottom left: Paul Vasquez (left) serves as the boys head coach and Gabe Lopez heads up the girls program. Bottom right: Gabriel Gallardo (left) won a state title at 157 pounds last winter. (Sahuarita High photos)

By Paul Vasquez

(Note: Paul Vasquez is the coach at Sahuarita High School. Bill X. Barron assisted with this story.)

Located in Pima County, Ariz., south of the Tohono O’odham Nation and 15 miles from Tucson, Sahuarita means “Little Saguaro,” a tree-like cactus native to the area. 

Just like the Saguaro, the Sahuarita wrestlers have thrived despite limited resources, showing thorny resilience in challenging conditions. They have proudly blossomed to their full potential, a testament to their determination and grit.

It has been on the low end of enrollment throughout its history. Our wrestling program has experienced sporadic team success over its first five decades, consistently producing one to two state placers per year. State champions were also sporadic.

In 2018-19, my first year, our boys’ program finished last at the state championships (out of 53 teams). When our best wrestler, a state title contender and the team captain, made a poor decision in school, I had to make a difficult choice and our principal, a big supporter of wrestling, left the final determination to me.

We could have kept him on the team because he was a good wrestler. But moving on was better for the program we wanted to build. Four years later, he returned to witness our triumph at state. We had a meaningful conversation about the journey he had embarked on, the lessons he had learned and the person he had become.

At Sahuarita, we seek young people who want to build a resume for their lives. By adhering to exacting standards, we may have lost a few kids. But those who have remained were committed to always giving their best effort. These kids never faltered or lost faith.

From our humble beginnings in Division 3, our team has undergone a remarkable transformation. We finished second in both 2020 and 2021 and then came the breakthrough as we finished first the past three seasons. Each year, we’ve had an average of seven medal winners, a testament to our team’s growing strength and skill. 

Our girls’ team, in its inaugural year as an official, school-sponsored team in 2023-24, finished as state runners-up; marking another milestone in our journey.

Our central program goal is to have a team that will compete for state championships every year. We want to win, but we also know winning must be earned. Despite our recent success, we understand how much goes into this. With our limited resources and number of athletes, we are doing everything we can to sustain this level of success. Ultimately, the goal is to be nationally ranked. 

Sahuarita annually hosts free clinics with former NCAA and NAIA wrestlers, where we welcome kids from our community as well as all southern Arizona. We hosted our first free all-girls clinic this past month with a girls World champion in attendance and a girls national champion as one of our clinicians.

During the season, we have traveled to the Las Cruces (N.M.) Invitational, Conflict at Cleveland (Albuquerque, N.M.), El Cajon Invitational (San Diego, Calif.), and the Reno Tournament of Champions (Reno, Nev.). 

Out of season, we have made trips to NHSCA Nationals (Virginia Beach, Va.), Folkstyle Nationals (Cedar Falls, Iowa), Preseason Nationals (Des Moines, Iowa), Freakshow (Las Vegas), Rocky Mountain Nationals (Las Vegas or Denver, Colo.), Western Regionals (Salt Lake, Utah), Kids Nationals (Salt Lake), and Junior and 16U National Championships (Fargo, N.D.). 

In-state tournaments include RMN’s Smash Nationals (Bullhead City), Clash at Bullhead (Bullhead City), and Terminator World Championships (Bullhead City or Mesa). Depending on our personnel, we travel out-of-state 10 to 12 times per year. 

Eight of these national events are run by RMN Events. For five years, we have taken 10-15 kids to practically every RMN event in Arizona, Nevada or New Mexico. I actively encourage other coaches to do the same. My kids are encouraged to double bracket in 15U and 18U. 

Our program has really taken advantage of RMN events over the last half-decade. They give our kids something to shoot for and provide the opportunity to wrestle folkstyle year-round. This has paid enormous dividends for our program, with a consistent level of success that our school hasn’t experienced before in wrestling. 

We also have a relatively large following on social media and consistently post about our kids’ successes, breakthroughs, and results from RMN events on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

For the past couple of years, we have gone on a weeklong summer road trip where we stayed and practiced with other schools in the Southwest. We travel to Morenci (the 10-time Arizona state champs), Cleveland (four-time New Mexico state champs), Coconino in Flagstaff, and Mesa Mountain View High School. Coconino is usually in the top ten in Arizona and Mesa Mountain View is a perennial top-five team in Arizona’s Div. 1. 

When we go to these other schools, they bring in more than just their athletes. They bring kids from different schools and the surrounding areas for two to three sessions. Coaches show what techniques their team performs successfully and then we incorporate these techniques into our style of wrestling and vice versa. They work with my kids and I work with theirs, which has created a strong bond between the teams and our communities. 

As a team, we trade stickers and shirts with other schools, cheering for their kids when they compete. In 2022 and 2023, we celebrated team state championships alongside Morenci, who won D4 while we won D3. We took joint team pictures and genuinely enjoyed each other’s programs and kids. One of my favorite memories in coaching was celebrating someone else’s success side-by-side with our own. 

Each year, we host open-mat workouts, inviting teams from all over the state to compete for free and with no pressure. There is now a collaboration of coaches with the same goals in mind. This idea has become a traveling, once-a-month throwdown in the Phoenix or Tucson area from March through July. This event has blossomed with open mats consisting of between 100 and 150 wrestlers.

From November to May, we hold free wrestling clinics for the first-to-eighth-grade wrestlers in our community. Our club has nearly 40 kids who were exposed to wrestling early on and enjoyed their experience. Jesus Gallardo runs this and donates his time three times a week for seven months out of the year. 

Our most formidable challenge has been the region’s unwillingness to change personnel or how things are run. When I first became a head coach, I wanted to travel and do everything with my kids. I ran into: “We’ve never done it that way before” so many times that I lost count. 

Therefore, to help improve the state of interscholastic wrestling in Arizona, I got involved in our state athletics association and am on the wrestling committee for the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA). This will be my fifth year. I also collaborate with other coaches, ask probing questions and garner their thoughts on improving scheduling, competition and tournaments.

With each accomplishment, we are remaking school and Sahuarita history. Our kids are building their own legacies, and we get to be a part of it. Our kids and coaching staff openly discuss our goals in wrestling, post high school and life. Together, we formulate a plan to make change happen for them. We are very intentional about how we work, what we discuss and why we plan. 

My primary objective is to instill mental toughness in all our athletes. We want them to leave our program with the self-belief that when things get tough in life, they can push themselves through and move forward, regardless of the circumstances. 

If they can learn to bounce back after a tough loss or after not accomplishing their individual goals in wrestling, they will be able to bounce back in life. Through accomplishing their goals, regardless of any setbacks they may experience, they come to believe in their capacity to achieve whatever they set out to accomplish on the mat and in their lives.