PHOENIX – From competing in high school and college to coaching some of the top wrestlers of all time, Thom Ortiz has had an illustrious career. Then a new challenge awaited and he took it: coaching at Saguaro High School, where he wants to revive a long dormant wrestling program. Ortiz is excited to get started but to him, this is bigger than wrestling. It’s about leadership and character development for wrestlers at Saguaro.
“I’m here to educate, motivate and inspire them,” Ortiz said. “My goal is leadership more than even technique. Anyone can teach technique now. You have YouTube of great wrestlers for technique. But the real coaching comes in when you’re preparing them for after high school.”
Ortiz, a Tucson native, wrestled at Sunnyside High School from 1982-85 and was a two-time state champion, a two-time runner-up and three-time All-American.
At Arizona State, he was a three-time Pac-10 champion, three-time NCAA All-American and a part of the 1988 NCAA championship team, which is ASU’s only NCAA wrestling team title.
Ortiz started his coaching career as the interim coach at ASU for the 1991-92 season. He joined Iowa State as its head assistant from 1992-2001 before becoming the head wrestling coach at ASU, where he was a three-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year and led the Sun Devils to three conference championships.
Ortiz has coached several notable wrestlers, including four-time national champion and the only undefeated wrestler in NCAA Division I history, Cael Sanderson; the 2010-11 individual NCAA champion, Anthony Robles; and former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez.
“I have a lot of gratitude for Saguaro and (athletic director) Matt Harris for deciding to implement this program,” Ortiz said. “They’re always doing what’s best for the kids.”’
Ortiz hopes that he can help develop high character individuals with life skills that can carry them far past high school wrestling.
He credits wrestling for helping him persevere through rough parts of his childhood. When he was 15, his brother passed away.
“That was a traumatic situation for me and back then we didn’t really get counseling,” Ortiz said. “It was just mostly like you mourn and get through it. What helped me get through it was wrestling.”
Harris is excited for there to be another competitive sport added to the winter sports season.
“We’re happy our students have another opportunity to compete,” he said. “We get quite a few football players who want wrestling to be their second sport, but we also have young athletes in our school who do wrestling as their primary sport and they’re just glad to see it coming back.”
Ryan Mink, a former wrestler and Saguaro parent, was surprised when his daughter told him that Saguaro did not have a wrestling program.
“I was just kind of shocked and thought, ‘How’s that possible?’” Mink said. “They have a great football team and great student athletes that attend that school. How was there no wrestling?”
Mink was president of the Saguaro Wrestling Club, which gave student athletes the opportunity to wrestle while there was no AIA sanctioned program at the school. Ortiz credited Mink for helping spearhead the program’s revival.
Mink, who is from Anchorage, Alaska, says wrestling gave him a physical outlet in the winter when it was far too cold to be outside and helped him overcome hardships he faced as a child.
“Wrestling gave me that support and an outlet,” Mink said. “I could practice the things that wrestling teaches, which is hard work, honesty, truth, discipline and a little bit of intensity to get after it.”
Ortiz is thrilled with his new role.
“I’m glad I’m the coach,” Ortiz said. “I’m going to do my best to get as many kids involved as we can. I believe that achievement comes in the process. If anything, I hope we can just elevate this community through wrestling.”
Saguaro will have their first match in November.