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Cleveland rebuilds and coach likes what he sees

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Cleveland High quarterback Gabe Ortega, left, evades a La Cueva tackler during their scrimmage Thursday night at Cleveland. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Cleveland High quarterback Gabe Ortega, left, evades a La Cueva tackler during their scrimmage Thursday night at Cleveland. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Heath Ridenour has been a coordinator for one state championship football team at Cleveland High School, and he nearly took the Storm into the finals in his second season as head coach.

At the end of a recent long morning at the Cleveland facility, Ridenour leans back in his office chair in a quiet fieldhouse and drops one of those one-liners that he practically whispers but immediately grabs your attention.

“I like our chances,” he said.

Was there any other team in this half of the state playing as well as Cleveland during the playoffs in November?

The Storm dropped a one-point heartbreaker in the Class 5A semifinals to Mayfield, setting in motion an offseason of change – and, simultaneously, hope.

This, despite a near total makeover of the starting lineup.

“We haven’t had that opportunity yet,” said senior defensive tackle Matt Cook, one of many prominent newcomers. “These first couple of games, we’re gonna shock the world.”

Cleveland opens Aug. 30 with a Saturday night game at Community Stadium against Manzano. The Storm are the early favorites in District 1-6A.

“We feel like we have the size to make a run, and the athletic ability to be pretty good,” said Ridenour, starting his third season. “The one thing we don’t have is experience. It comes back to the learning curve and the speed of the game.”

The defense lost all but one starter, that being safety Gabe Ortega.

The offense returns only four starters, although one of them is senior tailback Jesse Nieto, who rushed for 1,800 yards last year in a 10-2 season.

“Everyone talks about other running backs,” Ridenour said, “but he doesn’t get the notoriety that other guys do. And he’s OK with that.”

Cleveland’s offensive line, which will be mostly new – 6-foot-1, 295-pound junior guard Demetry Rodriguez is the best of the lot, Ridenour said – averages about 285 pounds. That line includes 6-6 left tackle Henry Hattis, the younger brother of former Cleveland volleyball/basketball star Sara Hattis.

The line will be protecting a new quarterback in Ortega.

Ortega is the Storm’s do-it-all guy. He’ll be a safety, a punter, a kicker, a kick returner and a QB. Last year, he returned five kickoffs for touchdowns.

“If he gets hurt,” Ridenour said, “we have to replace him with five people.”

Ortega said he is fortunate in that he’s got Ridenour, a former college QB, as a mentor.

“It’s a big step from last year,” Ortega said. “But coach Ridenour has done a good job getting me ready.”

Ridenour said Cleveland’s big three of Ortega, Nieto and 6-3 junior receiver Marcus Williams reminds him a bit of the trio of offensive stars who propelled the Storm to a 2011 state title: QB Cole Gautsche, tailback Romell Jordan and receiver Reece White. All three are now University of New Mexico Lobos.

Williams is poised for a breakout year after playing primarily in red-zone situations last season. He’s got size and speed and wonderful hands, and figures to be a prime target for Ortega.

“I have a pretty big responsibility,” Williams said. “I want to be one of the top receivers in the state.”

Said Ortega: “We’re gonna call his number in any crunch-time situation.”

Defense is where Cleveland has needs.

The Storm graduated a pair of Division I players in Desmond Branch and Sterling Napier, and a host of other seniors who were also integral.

It’ll be a less a defense of power than it will a defense of pursuit, Ridenour said. With a smaller lineup, the quickness factor becomes more important for Cleveland. Guys like Cook and linebacker Michael Romo are among the players to watch on that side of the ball.

“Those are some big shoes to fill,” Romo said of the departed seniors, “but I feel like we’re ready to go.”

Cook and Rodriguez at defensive tackles will be key to the Storm’s defense, plus Romo at middle linebacker and defensive backs Ryan Anderson and the speedy Ben Morales, one of the fastest players on the team.

Ridenour, naturally, can’t project how his newcomers will fare, but Cook, for one, has put his belief in the Cleveland system as a cure-all.

“We go out there and we do what we do, and we do the same things every year,” he said. “Because it clearly works. This is a great football program.”

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