ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The solution – so far – has eluded the Rio Rancho Rams.
When high school football practices commence, few programs can legitimately claim that they’re in a serious pursuit of a state championship.
Rio Rancho is one of those schools on the short list. The Rams have been a challenger – even a contender – for several years now, but they are still chasing the prize.
As the 2014 season dawns Monday with the start of official practices, nothing has changed; Rio Rancho has designs on a blue trophy.
“We’re not looking at anything short of that,” senior wide receiver Brady Patterson said. “We’ve got a ton of talent, we just have to put it together.”
The Rams are one of Class 6A’s (formerly 5A) winningest teams this decade. Two years ago they were a No. 1 seed for the playoffs. Last year they were the Journal’s choice as a preseason No. 1 in the metro area.
Coming off a 7-5 campaign that saw Rio Rancho lose to Mayfield in the Class 5A quarterfinals, the Rams have a solid foundation. They return half a dozen starters on each side of the ball.
“I think last year was a mental toughness issue,” said head coach David Howes.
The Rams open at home Aug. 29 against Valley. The matchup pits two high-scoring offenses – and more than that, two offenses that operate at breakneck speed.
Injuries at key positions, an inconsistent defense and turnovers all contributed to the Rams’ disappointing 2013 finish, which included third place in District 1-5A behind both Cleveland and Cibola. The Cibola game, more than any other, was the depressing epithet on the season, as the Rams wasted a 21-0 lead before losing 28-27.
“We went from a platoon system to seven guys going both ways,” said Howes, speaking generally about the season. Rio Rancho ditched its two-platoon system in order “to get our best guys on the field,” Howes said.
In short, the Rams continue to tinker in order to find the right mix for a playoff run that lasts until the first Saturday in December.
The offense is expected to be explosive, as usual.
“If we eliminate the turnovers,” said quarterback Easton Bruere, “we’re gonna put a ton of points up every week. It’s just like baseball. When you make errors, you’re not gonna win.”
Bruere, a senior, is in his third season as the Rams’ starting quarterback. While Bruere threw for 3,200 yards and 32 touchdowns last year, he also had a startling number (22) of interceptions.
“Look at last season; he tried to make too many things happen,” said Howes. “This year, I look forward to seeing him shine.”
Bruere has a solid collection of receivers, starting with Patterson but including Marky Alvarado and Miguel Barreras. Barreras, a state champion wrestler, missed last football season with a knee injury.
“We have some athletes out there who aren’t just great receivers but great athletes,” said Bruere. “I haven’t had a group of guys like this who will go up and get the football.”
Patterson, one of the metro area’s best overall athletes, figures to be Bruere’s top target. But Alvarado will be prominent in this offense.
“I definitely want to be that guy,” Patterson said. “I want to have the ball in my hands.”
In front of Bruere, senior Luis Torres is the only returning starter on the offensive line.
“We’re untested up front,” Howes said.
The defense should get a boost with a healthy Ikaika Waters at linebacker. He missed most of last season with a knee injury. He was one of six starters felled by injury.
“Kudos to some juniors who where thrown into the tumultuous part of the season,” Howes said, “and they performed pretty damn well.”
Another returning senior, linebacker Anthony Nolan, led the team in tackles last season. And Matt Jackson, a tremendous track athlete, should fill another linebacking position and give the Rams a speedy guy who can, and should, create turnovers.
The linebackers and secondary both are senior-heavy areas for the Rams.
One of the biggest changes for Rio Rancho is in the coaching staff. Chris Howe, formerly the head coach at Del Norte, is the Rams’ new defensive coordinator.
One thing is for certain this fall; Rio Rancho is not a preseason No. 1, and the Rams are not even the favorites in their district. That role belongs to Cleveland.
“At this point,” Howes said, “I don’t see a lot of separation between us, Cleveland, Cibola and Volcano Vista.”
Rio Rancho plans to be a factor to the end.
“What’s cool about this team and all these guys,” Bruere said, “is that they hate to lose. More than they like to win.”