Albuquerque prep football fans may be pining for that elusive, first-ever all-city state football final, but Cleveland and Las Cruces hope to pin-prick that balloon.
The Class 6A football semifinals kick off at 7 Friday night at Wilson Stadium and the Field of Dreams in Las Cruces, with the top four seeds battling for a berth in next week’s final.
The undefeated Monarchs’ trip south Friday against No. 4 Las Cruces (10-1) presents No. 1 Manzano (11-0) with arguably its most demanding test of the season.
“We told our defense, what better way to get (prepared) than facing what we have to face every day in practice,” Manzano coach Chad Adcox said.
There are three dynamic units in this game: both offenses — Las Cruces has scored 508 points, Manzano 507 — and also the Monarchs’ defense. It is Las Cruces’ defense, which hasn’t faced an offense this fast or explosive, that is the unknown in the equation.
“It’ll come down to the little things,” Las Cruces coach Mark Lopez said. “Can we maintain those gaps? Can we do a great job up front and make sure their speed goes side to side a little bit?”
Manzano’s three-headed monster — quarterback Jordan Byrd, running back Xavier Ivey-Saud and receiver/running back Andrew Erickson — have sparked this team offensively.
Byrd doesn’t raise his right arm often (just 92 attempts all year), but he completes 71 percent of his passes, and he has also rushed for 1,074 yards and 18 touchdowns. Ivey-Saud, the big junior back, went for 1,339 yards and 22 scores. Erickson has a combined 15 TDs in the pass and ground games.
The Bulldawgs have their own quartet of weapons with QB Payton Ball (1,822 passing yards and 15 TDs, and another 855 rushing), running back Chase Chaloupek (1,012 yards and 24 TDs), and receivers Brandon Baeza (40-996 with eight scores) and Ivan Molina who only recently returned from an injury that sidelined him most of the season.
“They look very tough,” Manzano linebacker Alejandro Vallejos said. “It’ll be good competing head-to-head with them. They’re not a team to take lightly.”
Ball cut the back of his throwing hand last week against Rio Rancho, but Lopez said he’s a go for tonight.
Bears coach Brandon Back’s approach is this: scrub a convincing, Week 2 victory over Cleveland from his players’ memory banks. Forget that La Cueva won handily, 30-7, and treat the Storm like a new opponent.
“We haven’t played them before,” Back said. “We’ll see a completely different team.”
Still uncertain is if the Bears will be without junior QB Dylan Summer (2,489 passing yards and 36 TDs). His status remains up in the air after injuring his knee on a scramble last week game against Eldorado. Reece Wilkinson and sophomore Austin Smith could both see time if Summer can’t go at Wilson Stadium as the second-seeded Bears (10-1) welcome No. 3 Cleveland (10-1).
“I think we’ll be fine,” La Cueva receiver Grant Giesler said of the uncertainty. “I’m not too worried about it.”
On Aug. 31, La Cueva led Cleveland 23-0 at halftime, had held the Storm to minus-7 yards in the first two quarters.
But this Cleveland offense, led by running back Isaac Torres (1,586 yards and 20 TDs) and senior QB Angelo Trujillo (2,175 yards and 27 scores), has rattled off 210 points in its last four games.
“We have to learn from our mistakes (in the first game),” Torres said. “Which was not running the ball and keeping them off the field.”
Last week, La Cueva had to rally from 21 down to eke past Eldorado.
“I think if anything,” Bears junior linebacker Fred Mady III said, “it’s going to help us. It gives us the reminder that if we don’t play to the best of our ability, we’ll get punched in the mouth.”
Other offensive stalwarts for La Cueva are receiver Wilkinson (66-1,132 with 16 touchdowns) and tailback D’Andre Williams (1,169 yards and 13 scores).