Sam Portillo sat at one side of the wrestling mat as Desert View’s coach and fellow former Sunnyside standout Lucio Murillo was on the opposite end as Sahuaro’s coach in a three-team meet Wednesday.
The other team, Sunnyside, was long gone from Sahuaro’s gym after beating the Cougars in the first match of the afternoon. The Blue Devils were supposed to wrestle also against neighborhood rival Desert View, but Portillo and Sunnyside coach Anthony Leon mutually agreed to cancel that match because they will face each other in next week’s sectionals.
Although the Blue Devils were out of the building, the Sunnyside dynasty — 31 state titles in the last 40 years — was still very much in force with Portillo and Murillo. Both were part of state championship teams throughout their Blue Devil careers, Portillo from 1982 to 1985 and Murillo between 2008 to 2011.
Murillo took an assistant coaching job at Sahuaro in 2014 after serving as Portillo’s assistant at Amphi for one season. He was elevated to head coach last season. Portillo is in his first season at Desert View, returning to the Sunnyside School District, where he was raised.
“I love it,” Portillo said when asked what it was like to return home. “Junior Gastelum, our district athletic director, and Stevie Holmes, our superintendent, gave me an opportunity to come back and I’m really thankful to them.
“It’s good to be back. Desert View is a great school with a great administration. That’s what makes it easier and have a lot of fun working there. I love being back home. To me, Desert View, Sunnyside — it’s the same thing, just a different name. It’s the same thing across the board. I love it.”
Portillo also acknowledged the work of former Desert View coach Buddy Lozano and the acceptance of principal RoseMary Rosas for his success with the Jaguars this year.
Desert View, which participates in the Diego Gadea Invitational at Salpointe on Friday and Saturday, concluded its first regular season under Portillo with a 28-8 record in dual meets.
“On a positive note, we ended up with a winning season and that’s always great,” Portillo said. “It’s a start being my first year at Desert View. … We’re hoping to qualify as many kids as we can. That’s the name of the game.”
The Jaguars’ 126-pound wrestler Anthony Lopez, a sophomore, leads a young group with most of the talent either freshmen or sophomores.
Murillo is in the midst of trying to build a winning culture at Sahuaro, but he admits to facing difficult obstacles at a school not known for its wrestling.
Some of the top wrestlers include 106-pounder Matthew O’Brien and 195-pounder Brexton Thomas, both of whom won individual titles at the William Bell Invitational earlier this season at Pueblo.
“We grew up on that winning formula at Sunnyside,” he said. “We were born into it. We did it from a young age, throughout. By the time we got to high school, we already had that mentality. It’s just the matter of bringing that mentality here and getting the newer generation of kids to buy into that.
“It’s tough because for a lack of better words, kids are softer now. You have to be careful with what you say, how you go about things. That plays a really big factor in today’s sports. Our coach (former Sunnyside coach Robert DeBerry) didn’t yell at us. He wasn’t physical but we know of people who were. They turned out fine.”
The coach who started Sunnyside’s championship reign in 1979 — Don Klostreich — and the one who carried on Klostreich’s dominance — Richard Sanchez — were of the drill-sergeant variety.
Portillo and Murillo, and Sunnyside’s Leon, are not known for being as abrasive, but they are assertive and demanding in their own way.
“I know Klostreich. I did camps with him when I was a kid,” Murillo said. “You talk to coaches like him. They’re showing technique. You just feel that intensity. You feel that respect. It’s comforting. Me talking to Klostreich. It’s comfort. We see eye to eye. We understand each other.
“I might talk to a parent now or a student now and we’re not eye to eye, not now, not yet. It takes time. It takes buying into. Once we get there, we’ll up there with those top schools. … Luckily for us we do have a green team, we have a young team. If those guys decide to come back next season, train all summer with us and the preseason … we’ll be in a better place next season.”
Like Portillo, Murillo extended his wrestling career to ASU after graduating from high school.
Murillo was with the Sun Devils only one season in 2011-12 before returning to Tucson to join the Air Force and work as a coach while stationed at Davis-Monthan. He in his fifth year at the base, presently working as a tactical aircraft maintainer.
Exhibiting that toughness he wants his wrestlers to emulate, of which he showed at Sunnyside at 125 pounds when his career there ended, Murillo suffered an accidental fall off a wing of a jet recently at Davis-Monthan. He believes there might be a tear of ligaments in his shoulder, which was dislocated.
“I try not to show the pain,” he says.
In an interesting twist, both Murillo and Portillo might be well-known to wrestlers, coaches and fans from their time at the high school level, but each have had to educate their own wrestlers about their storied backgrounds.
Portillo, for instance, said his wrestlers, “wouldn’t even understand it right now” when it comes to knowing that he wrestled for ASU after his Sunnyside career and was a longtime successful wrestling coach at Amphi.
They don’t know he has been part of the Team USA wrestling program. Portillo and 2008 Olympic gold medal wrestler Henry Cejudo have also staged the Sam Portillo Wrestling Camp at Desert View in which wrestlers are trained free of charge.
His success at Sunnyside and post-Blue Devil career, in addition to his community service with coaching and conducting the camps, merited Portillo with an induction into the Sunnyside Alumni Association Hall of Fame last year.
“It means a lot to me, just being a product of Sunnyside,” Portillo said of the hall of fame honor. “I’m really proud to be recognized and it means a lot to me. I’m in other hall of fames but this one probably means the most to me. It’s a great honor.
“I look at my upbringing — I pretty much kicked it around Pueblo High School and Sunnyside, both sides of Irvington — and it was just really an honor to be recognized and from here on out to be part of that tradition and have my name recognized forever, for doing well for the kids. That’s what it’s all about.”
Murillo’s boyish looks made some of his wrestlers wonder if he’s part of Sahuaro’s team — “I get that a lot … pretty soon I’ll have to strap up and help my guys,” he says with a laugh — so he has tried to show his wrestlers and the Sahuaro community that he is the coach who can make the program successful.
He won individual state titles at Sunnyside as a freshman and sophomore in 2007-08 and 2008-09, and was runner-up as a junior and senior.
“I tell these guys all the time and I can tell them from experience,” said Murillo about coming up short his last two years. “They talk to this young coach, they may not believe him, but I have done it. I’ve lived it.
“I tell them, ‘You do this much, you get here. If you don’t do anything, you fall short.’ I can speak from experience.”
Being such a young coach at 26, Murillo is like a sponge learning from other coaches, such as DeBerry and Portillo.
Although Portillo is well-established as a coach, he said he is still learning every day from his contemporaries.
During the 40th anniversary celebration last month of Sunnyside’s first state title team from 1979, Klostreich in his fiery way, said that as a young coach he “had to ask a lot of questions … you have to ask questions. Otherwise, how are you going to be successful? I never thought I knew everything.”
Portillo said he gets advice daily from former Sunnyside teammate and best friend Tommy Ortiz, who went on to star at ASU and was a three-time Pac-10 coach of the year there. He is part of ASU’s Hall of Fame.
Ortiz, who lives in Phoenix and trains his sons and helps wrestlers at a middle school there, will become part of Desert View’s program next season serving as a coach with Portillo.
“I can’t call him an assistant. He’s just a coach to this day,” Portillo said. “I get advice from Tommy every morning. He tells me what I should do. I get it from Zeke Jones, the head wrestling coach at ASU.
“I get it from (former ASU coach) Bobby Douglas. I talk to these guys on a daily basis. Roman Bravo-Young‘s coach, Cale Sanderson, I talk to him every week. I talk to the head coach at Oklahoma State, John Smith, probably the greatest American wrestler in U.S. history, a two-time Olympic champ.”
Portillo hopes to have Desert View’s program be championship caliber within five or six seasons, the same amount of time it took Klostreich to win that first one at Sunnyside in 1979.
“I love watching these kids smile. I love to see them win,” he said. “They’re getting used to winning and it’s changing. Hopefully we’ll get another group from the middle schools that come in.
“Some might decide to go to Sunnyside. I’ve played with the cards I’m dealt. I go with the flow. I have more fun that way.”
It makes a difference to him that when he sees his wrestlers, he sees much of himself, a young talent from the southside who became somebody through diligence on the mat, in the workout room and in the classroom.
“In our area, we have a lot of Mexican-Americans that their thing isn’t sports,” he said. “It’s not the same any more. But you can still win with these kids. That’s why I went back to Desert View to prove to these kids they are winners.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure we get there. I’m going to have fun getting there. Even if it doesn’t happen, I’ll get them to graduate. I can get them to do other things. That’s my main focus, getting these kids to believe in themselves and getting them to know they are champions.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.