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Aggies hit Albuquerque to celebrate bowl victory

The New Mexico State Aggies have gotten considerable mileage out of last month’s Arizona Bowl victory.

They ride’s not over yet.

NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia, football coach Doug Martin, Aggies wide receiver Conner Cramer — and the Arizona Bowl championship trophy — played to a receptive crowd Thursday night. Close to 300 crimson-clad fans and alumni gathered at the Nativo Lodge in northeast Albuquerque to celebrate the Aggies’ win over Utah State on Dec. 29 in Tucson.

New Mexico State has enjoyed a banner 2017-18 sports year, highlighted by the school’s first football bowl appearance since 1960. The men’s basketball team is off to a 17-3 start as well, and Moccia was not about to miss a chance to cash in on his department’s momentum — even in the backyard of one of the Aggies’ top rivals.

“This is our biggest pocket of alumni outside of Las Cruces,” Moccia said. “We had a lot of alums tell us they wanted to do something to celebrate so this seemed appropriate. Thanks to the bowl game and the way the basketball team is playing, there’s renewed enthusiasm right now. We want to keep that going as long as possible.”

Fliers promoting 2018 football season tickets and the Aggie Athletic Club decorated every table Thursday and Moccia made a donations pitch to the crowd. But celebrating the end of NMSU’s decades-long bowl drought topped the evening’s agenda.

“The party just keeps going on,” Cramer said. “We’ve pretty much been celebrating for weeks now but 57 years between bowl games is a long time. Seeing people get so excited has been incredible. It’s really kind of an honor.”

Martin, who took over an NMSU football program in shambles five years ago, got choked up momentarily while thanking fans for their support.

“We’ve got a lot of very loyal diehard fans here,” Martin said, “and getting a chance to share this with them is meaningful. Seeing people take pride in our football program is something that’s been missing for too long. It’s really nice to have that again.”

Martin and Moccia credited Aggies fans for strong turnouts at NMSU’s regular-season finale (a 22-17 win over South Alabama) and at the Arizona Bowl (a 26-20 overtime win). The latter drew an announced crowd of 39,132 — an estimated 25,000 of them New Mexico State fans.

“We won seven games this season,” Moccia said, “and I’d say the team won five of them. The fans won the last two.”

NMSU drummed up extra applause by showing video highlights of the bowl game and of New Mexico State’s basketball team. A separate video was devoted to the Aggies’ wins over the University of New Mexico in both sports, ending with the message, “This is #Aggiequerque.”

Local talk radio host and New Mexico Bowl executive director Jeff Siembieda moderated Thursday’s celebration and said he hopes NMSU appears in the Albuquerque-based bowl in the future. Martin merely hopes his team’s next bowl appearance comes sooner rather than 57 years later.

“I keep reminding our guys that it’s 2018 now and we haven’t even made a first down this year,” Martin said. “The 2017 season was a great start for our program but we’ ve got to sustain what we’ve started. That’s the message now.”

QB BATTLE BREWING: With starter Tyler Rogers having exhausted his eligibility, Martin is expecting an intense battle for the starting quarterback position to begin in spring camp. NMSU has five candidates: returning senior Nick Jeanty, junior college transfer Matt Romero from California’s Palomar College and redshirt freshmen Cameron Matthews, Josh Adkins and Jeremy Hodge. Who is the front-runner?

“It’s pretty much open competition and they’ll start on equal footing,” Martin said. “We’ll identify the top three this spring and go from there.”

SCHEDULE NOTE: NMSU’s football team will face Hawaii in a home-and-home series during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The Aggies, who will play as football independents starting next season, will travel to Honolulu in 2020 and host the Rainbow Warriors in 2021.