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Manzano, La Cueva vie for Class 6A crown in battle between ABQ football titans

Albuquerque is guaranteed to have its first big-school football champion since 2009. It will be a school that has never lost in a state final or a school that has never won in a state final.

Two teams that have been targeting the first Saturday in December all year, District 2-6A rivals Manzano and La Cueva, will put an exclamation point on the 2017 season this afternoon at Wilson Stadium when the top-seeded Monarchs (12-0) and second-seeded Bears (11-1) clash for the Class 6A title.

Kickoff is 1 p.m.

“We’ll just play this game like a regular game,” Manzano senior quarterback Jordan Byrd said. “We won’t treat it as any other type of game. It’s a Week 13 game for us.”

La Cueva is 4-0 in championship games, including a victory seven years ago.

This is Manzano’s third go-round in the title game, with Mayfield beating the Monarchs in 1996 and 2010.

And the onus is squarely on the Monarchs’ shoulders Saturday.

“The kids know how to respond, and they know how to act,” Manzano coach Chad Adcox said.

The Monarchs own the higher seed, the better record and a head-to-head victory against La Cueva two months ago. And Manzano is playing only about 150 yards from its practice field.

“They come out having everything to lose,” Bears wide receiver Grant Giesler said. “We have nothing to lose.”

When they last met, on Oct. 6, Manzano held a commanding 21-0 lead at halftime. But its defense twice in the final 4 minutes was forced to turn aside La Cueva with the Bears inside the 20 and trying to tie the game before Manzano finally held on for a 28-21 victory.

“We came out a little shell-shocked, not prepared for what they were gonna give us,” La Cueva coach Brandon Back said. “Maybe a little starstruck.”

Back might trade a little of that for full health.

La Cueva will probably be rotating quarterbacks between the runner, Reece Wilkinson (the team’s best wide receiver), and the passer, Austin Smith — much as it did in its thrilling overtime win over Cleveland in last week’s semifinals. Starter Dylan Summer suffered a season-ending knee injury in the quarterfinals against Eldorado two weeks ago.

“I think it worked well,” Back said of rotating QBs. “Reece is the runner, but Austin knows the offense better. It’s a good mix.”

Said Wilkinson: “Austin is a great kid, a great quarterback. He can do some things I can’t in a traditional passing offense.”

Adcox already was expecting some different looks from La Cueva, with or without this situation.

“It doesn’t influence what we’re doing, except to expect the unexpected,” Adcox said.

But unfortunately for the Bears, that may not be their only hindrance Saturday. Starting tailback D’Andre Williams, a 1,000-yard rusher, injured his ankle in the second quarter of the Cleveland victory and did not return. His availability is questionable.

If he is unable to go, sophomore Noah Woisin should be next man up for La Cueva. Manzano’s run defense is its strength, and the Monarchs held La Cueva to 21 rushing yards in the first meeting.

“This is just another game to us,” Monarch senior linebacker Cameron Herrera said. “We’re not getting into the hype. We’re just gonna do what we do.”

What Manzano does is run the ball supremely well with Byrd and especially junior Xavier Ivey-Saud, and play stellar defense.

The Monarchs won’t stray from their blueprint, not after 12 excellent games leading to this finale.

“Coach always says, stay calm, stay cool, stay collected,” Ivey-Saud said. “And do your job. We gotta let everyone know that we can run the ball and that we will run the ball.”

La Cueva has pulled out two amazing wins the last two weeks, so the Bears are overflowing with mojo.

“Being in a hole doesn’t frighten us,” Back said. “And there’s some confidence that comes with that. I don’t feel like we’ve had any pressure this week.”

Wilkinson said the size of the stage won’t be an impediment for La Cueva, especially as the underdog.

“We’ll play loose and hard and fast,” he said, smiling. “And try to win a football game.”