Pecos wrestler Derik Ortiz embraces assistant coach Linda Montaño after winning a state wrestling title in the 195 weight class Thursday (May 27) in Rio Rancho. At left, Pecos head coach Mike Montaño celebrates. His wife, Linda, battled breast cancer, and that effort motivated Ortiz to compete.

photos by Jim Weber/The New Mexican

Los Alamos

It's not Mike and Linda Montaño.

It's MikeAndLinda Montaño - a union of one.

That has been the way for the couple through almost 45 years of marriage, and just as many years of coaching wrestlers. It was that way through their year of cancer, as Linda Montaño battled Stage 3 breast cancer right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state in March 2020.

The union took center stage Thursday (May 27) night in the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho as they helped place Pecos High School junior Derik Ortiz's medal after he won his second straight state title. Moments after he pinned Socorro's Caden Moreland in the second period of the Class 1A/3A 195-pound championship match, Mike Montaño tried to tear apart the plastic bag containing the medal.

Linda calmly walked over to her husband, took the bag, tore it open and placed the medal around Ortiz's neck. It was MikeAndLinda Montaño, at their best.

"We're one," Linda said. "When he struggles, I come alongside him and help him out."

Then, it was Ortiz's turn to help her, as the two shared a long embrace and even longer tears. On a day when green and gold dominated the 1A/3A and 4A portion of the tournament, Pecos green and gold popped a little brighter, as Ortiz said the Montaños were his motivation.

"Him and Missus Mo put in so much work with me, it just means the world to me," Ortiz said. "It means so much. I fought for her and I fought for all my family. I fought for me and all the hard work I put in for me."

Perhaps it was fate that brought the couple to Pecos, as Mike Montaño took over for Benito Martinez as head coach midway through the 2019-20 season. He brought along his trusted assistant Linda, and the two made a quick connection with Ortiz and the rest of the Panthers.

Last year, Ortiz became the first Pecos wrestler to win a state title in nine years. Then, the junior became the first two-time state champion with his win over Moreland, and he said the Montaños played a big role in keeping his focus through the pandemic.

"It's all mentality, and I have to push myself and I have to keep going," Ortiz said. "I can't let these guys down. [The Montaños] helped me so much."

Wrestling was a big motivator for Linda during her cancer battle. She said she vowed to be at the state meet after her diagnosis. But wrestling always had a role in her life. She was a wrestling manager at the now defunct Pueblo Junior High in Los Alamos, Los Alamos High School and Santa Fe High when she transferred there her sophomore year.

She met Mike after high school, not knowing he was a wrestler at St. Michael's High School in the mid-1970s when the program was one of the best in 1A/3A. Once again, providence reared its head.

"We've been together at [Albuquerque] Del Norte, then [New Mexico Military Institute] and at St. Mike's for 16 years," Linda said. "I've been at this almost all my life."

Linda was always his right hand woman when he coached on the mat at all of his stops, but the union was challenged last year when Linda learned she has Stage 3 breast cancer. It spread to her lymph nodes, and aggressive chemotherapy was needed to stop its further spread.

The pandemic prevented the Montaños from flying to Phoenix for her treatments, so Mike drove them from their Santa Fe home every other week for her treatment. Linda said her cancer is in remission, but the recovery phase of her treatment is just a debilitating as the chemotherapy.

"It's been rough, to say the least," Mike said. "With my wife and the [Pecos] boys' support, I've had it made. I've had a good life with wrestling, but this year has been special to me."

Linda said the goal of coaching this season was all she needed to endure it.

"I would text Derik and all the boys during my treatment," Linda said. "They would call me and see how I was doing, and I would say, 'Get off the couch and get out on the field and get after it.' "

Even though Pecos only managed to get two wrestlers to the state meet, Derrick Romero brought home a third-place finish at 126 pounds to give the program two medalists.

When Ortiz finally put Moreland on his back to collect his pin, Linda raised her hands in victory as tears welled up in her eyes while Mike and Ortiz shared a bear hug. Then, Mike had his struggles with the plastic, and Linda swooped in to help - just like any good assistant and wife.

MikeAndLinda Montaño were one again.

West Las Vegas, Los Alamos runners-up

The green-and-gold parade didn't end with Pecos. West Las Vegas earned the program's best team showing with a second-place finish behind 1A/3A champion Cobre. The Dons - behind the strength of six wrestlers reaching the finals, and four more took third place in the consolation bracket - scored 119 points to finish 24 points behind the Indians.

West Las Vegas also secured two state champions in eighth-grader Cruz Martinez (at 113 pounds) and Eric Gallegos (170).

Dons head coach Juan Montaño said it has been a long road to respectability for the program, which has long been overshadowed by Las Vegas Robertson. While the Cardinals missed out on a top-three finish for the fourth time in the last 20 years, the Dons ensured that a Las Vegas school found a place on the podium.

"When we first started with this program, we were the laughingstock of New Mexico and the wrestling world," Montaño said. "Eventually, we made to where we've been and it's surreal feeling."

St. Michael's senior Santiago Martinez missed out on repeating as state champion with a loss to Cobre's Arthur Quintana, 3-0, in the 1A/3A 220 finals. Martinez was the heavyweight champion last year.

Meanwhile, the Hilltoppers of Los Alamos capped head coach James Hatt's six-year run by tying Silver for second place in the 4A bracket with 186 points.

Los Alamos had a pair of state champions in 160-pounder Damian Martinez and Teke Nieto at 195, but a pair of Hilltoppers who were seeded No. 1 in their respective classes came up empty.

Ben Gillis lost to Talan Olguin of Aztec, 11-4, in the 113 finals. Senior Damian Gonzales was runner-up for third straight year after losing the 138 final to Silver's Landon Sandoval, 4-2.

Despite the disappointing endings to those matches, Hatt said the program is in good hands for his successor.

"We only graduate three [wrestlers] this year, so we'll field a solid program next year," Hatt said. "We built a solid program that just keep reloading. I wouldn't be leaving if I didn't think the program was in fantastic hands."

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