At 7 tonight, everything counts.
I’ve done about as much as I can do to give you readers a helpful primer. We’ve written about every one of the metro’s 25 teams, plus the area’s projected top players, realignment shifts in New Mexico and, in today’s section, a look at some of the top powers outside our metro bubble.
The question I field more than any other this time of year is this: who’s the team to beat?
I’m not sure we have another potential undefeated team lurking in the tall grass. There have been five undefeated state champions in the big-school division just in the last seven seasons, including the last four years in a row, and all from Albuquerque or Rio Rancho.
Manzano, the defending champion, opens with a 29-year-old, first-time head coach in Phillip Martinez, and the Monarchs’ cupboard is not entirely bare after their magical 2017 season.
But I have Manzano as only the third-best team in its district, behind La Cueva and Eldorado.
I rated the Bears slightly ahead of the Eagles on my metro top-5 countdown for two reasons: the presence of a returning and veteran running back in D’Andre Williams, and that formidable La Cueva defense. But I would say the margin between those two rivals is rather slim, especially when you consider Eldorado’s sensational dual-threat quarterback, Gabe Smith. A La Cueva-Eldorado state final? It is certainly a strong possibility. (And for the record, Manzano could still be very much in the hunt in that district.)
Cleveland coach Heath Ridenour, who has won nearly 79 percent of his games since he took over the Storm in 2012, has cultivated an incredible football culture there and is already on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
The Storm could be 6A’s best team; I think they are as we reach today’s openers. One of the great components to this season is that all of the contenders have areas of concern, to one degree or another. As always, who best navigates adversity, and who can stay most healthy, factor heavily into determining a state champion.
Las Cruces looks to be the most obvious choice for a challenger outside our local zip codes. The Bulldawgs, like Cleveland, will start a sophomore quarterback. Las Cruces, like Cleveland, will have wonderful weapons surrounding that sophomore QB.
Other 6A teams whose progress I’m eager to follow include Volcano Vista (which I included in my metro top-5 countdown, possibly to my detriment), Hobbs, Rio Rancho and Centennial. Can teams like Sandia and Cibola make inroads in their tough districts and get into the playoff mix? Will Rio Grande end its 37-game losing streak? (Gotta love the optimism and enthusiasm of Ravens coach Dennis Minidis, who is working to create a sturdy program built on good students and societally productive young men.) How will Highland and especially Valley fare now that they are 5A programs?
In this newly worked Class 5A, the metro-centric district of Belen, Los Lunas, Valencia and Valley shapes up as wonderful stuff over the final three weeks of the regular season. I like Los Lunas’ chances to reach the final day of the season as much as I did Belen’s prior to last season.
Artesia, Piedra Vista, Roswell, Farmington and maybe even Belen might have something to say about this before it’s over, of course.
Hope Christian drops into Class 3A, and the Huskies ought to be immediately competitive there. Out near the Sunport, Mission Achievement & Success, a team with no home field, has nothing but road games as it enters Class 2A and a district for the first time. Good luck to the Bulls. They won’t have it easy.
Rio Grande, AHS and Albuquerque Academy all will be independent for the next two years. With due respect to the Ravens and Bulldogs, there isn’t another metro-area school, in my opinion, that has to work harder to keep football relevant than the Academy.
Chargers coach Kevin Carroll, who has been at this 30 or so years, remains loyal to that program – which is only the third-most popular fall sport at the Academy. Academy probably should have dropped to 8-man years ago. That the Chargers remain 11-man is slightly miraculous, and Carroll deserves full credit. My admiration for that man is unending.
Today, fellow Journal staffer Ken Sickenger and I return with our weekly picks. And while I’m at it, I may as well throw a dart at the board and offer up my opinion on which two Class 6A teams will be left standing at the end:
Cleveland and La Cueva. Far from a bold choice, but a relatively safe one.
The funhouse is open for business.
Hobbs JV at Eunice
Rio Grande at Highland, Milne
Cibola at Sandia, Wilson
Santa Fe Indian at Cuba
Pojoaque Valley at Capital
Tatum at Gateway Christian
Zuni at Grants
Hope Christian at Portales
Dexter at Santa Rosa
Carlsbad at Artesia
Gallup at Bernalillo
Springer at Carrizozo
Lovington at Chaparral, 6 p.m.
Eldorado at West Mesa, Community
Ruidoso at Crownpoint
Tucumcari at Escalante
Española Valley at Los Alamos
Hatch Valley at Estancia
Bayfield, Colo., at Farmington
Cleveland at Oñate, FOD
Deming at Gadsden
Aztec at Miyamura
Capitan at Hagerman
Clovis at Hobbs
Roy/Mosquero at Hondo Valley, 6 p.m.
Dulce at Laguna-Acoma
Elida at Lake Arthur
Piedra Vista at Los Lunas, 6 p.m.
Jemez Valley at Magdalena
Ramah at Foothill, Milne, 1 p.m.
Valley at Albuquerque High, Milne
West Las Vegas at Moriarty
Logan at Mountainair
Fort Sumner at N.M. Military Institute
Navajo Prep at Newcomb
La Junta, Colo., at Raton
Santa Fe at Robertson
St. Pius at Goddard, Wool Bowl
Vaughn at San Jon/Grady, 4 p.m.
Thoreau at Socorro
Hot Springs at Tularosa
Alamogordo at Valencia
Volcano Vista at La Cueva, Wilson
Window Rock, Ariz., at Wingate
Jal at Texico
Tohatchi at Albuquerque Academy, noon
Mayfield at Atrisco Heritage, Community, 1 p.m.
Manzano at Las Cruces, FOD, 1 p.m.
Rio Rancho at Centennial, FOD, 7 p.m.
Cloudcroft at McCurdy, 1 p.m.
Mission Achievement & Success at Mescalero Apache, 2 p.m.
Belen at Del Norte, Milne, 1 p.m.
Taos at St. Michael’s, 1:30 p.m.