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Prep football: It’s time for powerhouses to take stage in playoffs

Time for the heavyweights to climb into the ring.

The high school football playoffs take a decidedly more serious turn this weekend as the top four teams in Classes 6A through 3A make their playoff debuts.

Three of the four quarterfinal matchups in 6A are set for 7 tonight, highlighted by No. 2 La Cueva (9-1) meeting No. 7 Eldorado (7-4) at Nusenda Community Stadium.

The Bears won a turnover-plagued 35-21 game in District 2-6A against the Eagles on Oct. 27 — a game Eldorado led early 14-3. The teams combined for nine giveaways.

“Their team speed (on defense) is so good, it makes you look like a guy has had a bad game,” Eldorado coach Charlie Dotson said. “They have 11 guys who can run, and you don’t find that pretty regularly.”

Both quarterbacks — Gabe Smith for the Eagles, Dylan Summer for the Bears — had poor outings in the first meeting, but both have produced large numbers this season.

Two of 6A’s top receivers are on display here, too — Reece Wilkinson (61 catches, 16 for TDs) for La Cueva and Colin Barz (12 touchdowns) for Eldorado.

Only one team on the Bears’ schedule — Manzano, with 28 — scored more points on that stellar La Cueva defense than did the Eagles.

A rematch of the 2016 state championship game is on tap at the Field of Dreams, where No. 4 Las Cruces (9-1) meets No. 5 Rio Rancho (9-2).

“They know exactly who we are, and we know exactly who they are,” Rams coach David Howes said. “It’s a heavyweight fight, in my eyes.”

The Rio Rancho defense will have to contend with the potent Bulldawg quartet of QB Payton Ball, receivers Brandon Baeza and Ivan Molina, and tailback Chase Chaloupek. Las Cruces averages more points per game (48) than anyone in 6A except Hobbs.

“They have four kids that are … capable of breaking plays every play,” Howes said. “We have to put them in a basket and try to sort them out. But I feel very confident in our defense.”

Senior tackle Evan Tafoya-Vallo of Rio Rancho has been reinstated for this game, even though he was ejected in a first-round win over Centennial last week. The New Mexico Activities Association reviewed the game film and determined that Tafoya-Vallo had not done anything to merit an ejection, which would have required him to miss this week’s contest.

No. 9 Clovis (6-5) visits No. 1 Manzano (10-0) at Wilson Stadium. The Wildcats labored in the red zone in their first-round win over Atrisco Heritage, and Clovis coach Cal Fullerton acknowledged the need to get that fixed in time to face the Monarchs, who beat Clovis 34-10 in a 2-6A matchup at Leon Williams Stadium on Oct. 13.

But Clovis led that game 7-6 at halftime. However, the Wildcats gained only 96 total yards that night — 60 on the game’s first drive.

“Their defense gets overlooked because of how good their offense is,” Fullerton said of the Monarchs.

Fullerton said Thursday that Brandt Davis, who filled in at QB when Darian Goins was injured in the first quarter last week, would get the start against Manzano tonight.

On Saturday afternoon at 1, No. 6 Hobbs (9-2) finally makes its first appearance in the metro area this fall, as the Eagles take on No. 3 Cleveland (9-1).

Hobbs senior quarterback Gavin Hardison has thrown for 5,002 yards and 55 touchdowns, and has had four games where he threw at least seven TD passes. This is as pass happy a team as there is in the state, in any class.

“They have the most athletic receiving corps in the state,” Storm coach Heath Ridenour said. That Eagle group is led by senior Alec Finney (74 catches for 1,525 yards and 24 scores) and junior Semaj Cotton (66 balls for 1,118 yards and 9 TDs).

“Fast individuals, and they catch the ball well,” Ridenour said.

Hobbs averages over 50 points a game.

Class 5A

No. 1 Artesia (8-2) appears at Bulldog Bowl on Saturday (1 p.m. kickoff) against No. 8 St. Pius. It’s the first meeting between the two since the Sartans beat the Bulldogs in the state final a year ago in Albuquerque.

St. Pius (7-4) will have standout senior receiver Ryan McGaha available for this game. McGaha sat out the final three quarters last week against Lovington with a leg bruise, coach Dave Montoya said.

Two top-notch QBs will go head to head for the first time: Artesia’s Taylor Null (2,778 passing yards and 39 touchdowns, with only three interceptions) and St. Pius sophomore Diego Pavia, who rushed for five TDs in the first-round win against Lovington and engineered a Sartans comeback from 21 points down.

Unbeaten Belen (10-0), the 2 seed, is home Saturday (1 p.m.) to No. 7 Miyamura (9-2), as 5A’s two winningest teams this year get together. Junior tailback Diego Casillas has enjoyed a monster season for the Eagles, with 1,857 yards and 25 touchdowns.

No. 5 Los Lunas (8-3) is at No. 4 Farmington (7-3) in the only one of the quarterfinal games being played tonight. The Tigers go into Hutchison Stadium to face an accomplished Scorpions pass offense led by senior QB Isaiah Jaramillo (2,808 yards, 32 touchdowns), who pilots Farmington’s spread attack. Receivers Jacob Brown and Ethan Todd have combined to catch 22 of 32 scoring passes from Jaramillo.

“They’re a good football team,” Los Lunas coach Jeremy Maupin said. His team put up 69 points on Capital in the first round last week. “We think it’s gonna be one of those, whoever’s defense plays better and gets some stops, will come out on top.”

After taking out Goddard last week, No. 6 Aztec (6-5) visits No. 3 Roswell (7-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Wool Bowl.

Class 4A

It’s been only two weeks since Moriarty (8-3) was in Ruidoso, when the Warriors (7-3) beat the Pintos 39-31 in the regular-season finale.

The district rivals meet again tonight in Ruidoso, this time with a berth to the state semifinals at stake. And Moriarty coach Joe Anaya is primarily stressed about containing Warriors senior QB Brennam Stewart, who ran for 247 yards and threw for 175 more in the team’s first meeting.

“We have to slow (him) down,” Anaya said. “We have to do a better job of reading our keys and flying to the football and wrapping up and finishing plays.”

The Ruidoso-Moriarty winner faces either No. 1 St. Michael’s (9-1) or No. 8 Hatch Valley (7-4) in the semis. The Horsemen are home Saturday afternoon to the Bears in that top half of the bracket.

The all-Las Vegas affair between No. 3 Robertson (9-1) and No. 6 West Las Vegas (7-4) at 1:30 Saturday afternoon should be the most fiery of the four quarterfinals; the Cardinals whipped the Dons 51-21 at the end of October.

The winner there faces No. 2 Portales (9-1) or No. 7 Taos (8-3). The Tigers pulled out a last-minute quarterfinal win over Hope Christian to advance to this game on the eastern plains at 7 tonight.

Class 3A, 8-Man

Quarterfinals in 3A are Newcomb at Eunice, Raton at Estancia, Tularosa at Santa Rosa and Dexter at Capitan. Only Eunice-Newcomb is Saturday.

n Undefeated Melrose (9-0), the No. 1 seed, is on the road in the 8-Man semifinals, visiting fourth-seeded Tatum (7-3). Third-seeded Mesilla Valley Christian (9-1) visits No. 2 Mountainair (8-1) in the other semi.

Both kick off at 7 p.m. today.