ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Desmond Branch and Sterling Napier of the Cleveland Storm football team share something in common, something separate from any other football players across the the metro area.
They are the only two current players around here who own state championship rings.
The Storm most assuredly has designs on another blue trophy in 2013. I remember my conversation with several of Cleveland’s players a few weeks ago in the Storm fieldhouse after a morning practice.
“As a group,” senior Andre Li Rosi said, “we’re not the most talented team. But if we work together …”
It was right about here that Branch jumped in.
“Hanging banners,” he said.
That, he said, is what he wants Cleveland football to be about.
Can Cleveland hang a companion piece next to that 2011 banner?
That question, like so many others involving each of the Journal’s eight Rio West football-playing schools, will be answered during the next three months.
At the start of a season, everyone, to some degree, entertains at least some hope of greatness. Even if most of them won’t get there, you have to appreciate the purity of that dream.
I’ve spent the past six Saturdays – starting with Volcano Vista on July 20 and ending today with Rio Rancho – writing profiles of the eight RW programs.
In four days, the season begins, with Volcano Vista inaugurating Community Stadium with a home game against Manzano on Wednesday night.
Here are some of the storylines to be watching this fall:
BERNALILLO: As Bernalillo quarterback Ralf Olguin said during the preseason, the Spartans are sick of losing. Attitude surely counts, but truly, it’s up to a large senior class to deliver victories.
This team needs some kind of early statement if it hopes to regain that winning form from several years ago.
CIBOLA: Coming off a 1-9 season, there is curiosity about the Cougars and new coach Rod Williams, who is promising a faster, more diverse offense.
Will Cibola take to this new system quickly? And does Cibola have the athletes to start winning regularly?
The Cougars need to show some progress in the won-loss column to validate Williams’ beliefs that Cibola can challenge.
CLEVELAND: This is a senior-dominated lineup, which is one reason the Storm is getting such respect from other coaches.
I think the Cleveland defense will be fine, but I also think everyone will be watching closely to see how the Storm adjusts to a post-Romell Jordan existence on offense. Coach Heath Ridenour called QB Kian Homme one of the best of the state; we’ll see how that pans out. He may need to carry this team from time to time.
RIO RANCHO: For the second year in a row, the Rams will be a target of everyone they play. They handled that role incredibly well last year in the regular season, then flamed out in the playoffs, going out in their first game.
Have they learned the necessary lessons?
This team won’t be judged on its regular season in 2013 – only by what it does in the playoffs. That may not be fair, but that’s the way it is, friends.
And the Rams know it.
ST. PIUS: The Sartans have been stuck in a rut of mediocrity and would like very much to escape that reputation.
St. Pius is one school that you would have to say the economy damaged, at least in terms of football. This private Catholic institution is down several hundred students over a few years ago, and it’s affecting football.
The Sartans still have great athletes, but fewer than they used to have. Can they overachieve beyond a 5-5 or 6-4 record? I don’t know. Like Bernalillo, St. Pius needs a quality win in the first half of the season to perhaps ignite something bigger.
VALLEY: No team in the metro area – not even Rio Rancho, which is considered the preseason No. 1 in Class 5A – has put more pressure on itself to win big this year than the Vikings.
It’s kind of a bad deal for Valley, when you think about it, because anything less than a solid playoff run will mean disappointment, and will open the Vikings up to criticism.
There’s no questioning this team’s talent or experience. But Valley, in my opinion, has to get tougher – and meaner – if it wants to take that next step. And the school won’t ever have a better chance for greatness.
VOLCANO VISTA: The Hawks were a terrific story last year, and they really lived a charmed life in the second half of the season – a late collapse against Rio Rancho in the regular season notwithstanding.
This school has the athletes to be a regular 5A contender. The Hawks must prove that 2012 was more the rule than the exception.
That may be easier said than done.
WEST MESA: It’s been a tough offseason for the Mustangs in light of the health of one of their teammates, cancer-stricken Zak Lannon, who is scheduled to have a lengthy, and risky, surgery in New York on Monday.
To that end, the Mustangs have a wonderful and worthy cause to play for this season. On a personal level, and as a cancer survivor myself, I hope West Mesa finds some success this year. For Zak’s sake; for all their sakes. That community deserves a reason to smile.
As for the football, it’s an undersized team that frankly will have to play above its skill level to get into the playoffs. West Mesa is not equipped to handle Valley, or Atrisco Heritage, in its district. Not this year.
I’ll start with District 2-4A, Bernalillo’s league. The Spartans would seem to have the elements in place to win it, but you have to wonder whether they can recover so quickly from two consecutive seasons of distress.
I think Bernalillo finishes second in 2-4A this year and just misses the playoffs.
- In District 5-4A, Moriarty is the clear favorite, coming off consecutive district titles. St. Pius probably finishes second ahead of Del Norte, and the Sartans should qualify for the postseason.
- Valley is the easy preseason pick in 5-5A, but the Vikings should be wary of Atrisco Heritage. Still, I’m not sure the Jags can keep pace with Valley, at least not this year.
The Vikings should win the district. But, if they can also pick up a win against Manzano or Eldorado – or both – in the two weeks leading up to the Atrisco Heritage game, then Valley could be in line for a top-four seed and first-round bye in the playoffs.
West Mesa will likely battle with Highland for third and fourth place in 5-5A, although Rio Grande could surprise.
- Finally, there is District 1-5A.
I give Rio Rancho the edge over Cleveland because of the Rams’ depth on the offensive side of the ball, especially in the skill positions. This team has two solid running backs, three top receivers, plus a healthy and dangerous QB in junior Easton Bruere.
Rio Rancho looks like it can score as many points as it wants, and I’m sure it will win a few shootouts this year. (Rio Rancho should go over 40 a night with the group it has.) That is why I have the Storm as the second-place team; I just don’t believe – not yet, anyway – that Cleveland, going heads-up against Rio Rancho, can win a shootout against the Rams.
Volcano Vista looks again to be the third-best team in 1-5A, not that that counts for anything. The Hawks were the third-place team in this district last year, but they lasted longer in the playoffs than Rio Rancho or Cleveland.
Personally, I hope that Cibola, my alma mater, will show marked improvement.
New coach Williams sounds the usual upbeat tones, and the Cougars will offer a bit more variety, but they still have a very difficult schedule. Hard to imagine Cibola finishing anywhere but last place in 1-5A.
Week 1 choices
I’ll take Manzano over Volcano Vista on Wednesday night, and Valley to beat Cibola on Thursday night.
On Friday, I’m going with Sandia over West Mesa, Bernalillo over Taos and Cleveland to beat La Cueva.
Next Saturday, I think St. Pius should handle Albuquerque without too much trouble; same for Rio Rancho against overmatched Highland.