And then there were two.
On the final weekend of the high school football season, two northern teams will be trying to bring home the blue championship trophy. And that in itself is quite the rarity. Taos in Class 4A is in the title game for the first time in school history, while Robertson in 3A is playing in the finale for a fourth straight season after coming up empty the previous three years.
NO. 3 TAOS (11-1) VS. NO. 5 BLOOMFIELD (9-4)
SATURDAY, 1 P.M.
Last week: Taos beat No. 2 Portales 35-14; Bloomfield beat No. 1 St. Pius 15-6
Banners and signs are plastering windows and walls throughout the town. Plans have been carefully crafted. Taos is bursting with Tigers stripes as its team prepares to meet history head on.
“Why not be excited, why not be ecstatic?” asked Tigers coach Art Abreu Jr. “People are making plans on what to do, signs are going up. My doors are blown by all the support we’re getting. It’s nice to see the town coming together and the all the support the boys are getting. They deserve it.”
Coming into the season, Abreu had an inkling this could be a special season.
He had a veteran squad that the previous two seasons had gotten deeper and deeper into the playoffs.
The Tigers boast a heady quarterback in Justin Good, whose goal has been to make the correct play and keep mistakes down to a minimum. And pile-driving running back Jonathan Garcia has been one of the state’s top rushers all season, with 1,465 yards and 14 touchdowns.
But it is the veteran and beefy line on both sides of the ball that has pushed and prodded the Tigers to where they have gotten.
Seniors Dominic Lopez, Estevan Valerio, Tyler Gomez and Clayton Demas, and junior Santiago Salazar have feasted on smaller, less experienced opponents all season.
It was one of the first things Bloomfield Bobcats coach Bob Allcorn noticed when he started breaking down film of Taos.
“They’re very big and strong,” he said of the Tigers. “They come across the ball hard. They’re offensive and defensive lines are outstanding. They run a little bit older style offense out of the ‘I’ and that’s something we haven’t seen a lot.”
Bloomfield has faced some power running teams this season, but none quite like Taos.
“We’ve seen power teams and we’ve handled it pretty well, but this is the first time we’ve seen a team as big as Taos,” Allcorn said. “They try to do different formations, and do different things to try and get you out of alignment. They do a good job of blocking. They come down hard and move people.”
Rather than size, the Bobcats rely on speed, quickness and shiftiness.
“I think we’ve been the smaller team every game but one,” Allcorn said. “We’re not impressive to the eye. People are always amazed how much smaller we’ve looked than the other team, but size is just a number on the program. It’s really about what you’ve done in the weight room, execution of scheme and being aggressive. We’re much more of a speed/quickness offense and defense than power. That’s what we have to rely on because that’s what we have.”
What the Bobcats also have is a plethora of weapons.
“We’ve got a lot of skill kids,” Allcorn said. “We have a lot of speed, a lot of talented kids and that makes us tough to defend. You have to be aware of a lot of things, and that makes it difficult on other teams and how they’re going to play us.”
The offense revolves around light-it-up quarterback Rogelio Gonzales (2,450 yards, 20 touchdowns), who’s capable of squeezing the ball into tight spaces. And in the backfield, Ayden Reinhardt (544 yards), Vincent Marquez (341 yards) and Kenyon Mosley (300 yards) are all capable runners. Mosley (611 receiving yards) is a pass-catching threat out of the backfield to complement receivers Noah Gurule (63 catches, 763 yards) and J.T. Seitzinger (607 yards).
A further weapon for Bloomfield is its ability to turn over opposing offenses. With five interceptions against St. Pius in the semifinal game, the Bobcats have come up with a total of 22 picks and 22 fumble recoveries, or more than three per game.
“Ball security is the main focal point of this game,” Taos’ Abreu said. “Ball security, execution and enthusiasm. That’s what this game is about. Who executes, keeps the ball in their hands and not let it slip into the other team’s hands.”
NO. 5 ROBERTSON (11-2) at NO. 2 DEXTER (10-2)
SATURDAY 2 P.M.
Last week: Robertson beat No. 1 Hope Christian 25-17; Dexter beat No. 6 West Las Vegas 35-7.
Three years in a row, the Cardinals have been forced to watch the opposing team celebrate a state championship while they glumly accepted their red second-place trophy. It’s been something the Robertson coaches have done their best to make the players forget this season.
“They’re thinking about winning one more game,” Cardinals coach Leroy Gonzalez said. “All we want to be is 1-0 after this week. We don’t care about three years ago, two years ago, or last week. All we care about is the Dexter Demons on Saturday.”
Still, kids are kids and it would be unnatural for the Cardinals to be able to put the past completely behind them, he said.
“It’s something about finishing the deal the last three times and we didn’t do it,” Gonzalez said. “And now we’re working on finishing the deal.”
Robertson, which had relied on a power ground game all season behind Santiago Gonzales (619 yards) and Antonio Padilla (536 yards), shocked Hope Christian last week with a strong and efficient passing game. Quarterback Brandon Lucero, who entered the game with 1,007 yards passing, chucked it for 222 yards and three touchdowns, displaying accurate power and touch.
“We know he can sling it,” Gonzalez said. “We kind of like to run the ball first. When things open up for us, we like for him to hit it and we expect him to do that.”
Two of those touchdowns went to tight end Julius Vaughn, who had only three catches entering the game. Similar wrinkles likely will be forthcoming, the coach said.
“We’ve got some stuff ready. It just needs to open up for us,” Gonzalez said. “That’s the key. We’re hoping that they saw a little of a passing game and will open up and make it the softer on us instead of up tight on us.”
While the Cards have plenty of championship experience, it’s been a rarity for the Demons.
The last time Dexter in the finale was 2009 and the Demons haven’t won since their current coach, Arturo Duran, was the team’s quarterback in 1997.
“They’ve got that experience, they know what it takes to win the championship,” Duran said of Robertson. “That’s an advantage over most teams. But we’ve got all the community support. It’s been awesome to see all the support because it’s been a while.”
Dexter too is a run-first team, amassing nearly 2,600 yards on the ground behind Nick Cobos (823 yards), Isaac Irigoyon (596 yards) and Ricardo Contreras (459 yards), while quarterback Jarren Amaro (1,756 yards passing, 421 yards rushing) has been a dual threat.
“We knew we would have the skills guys to compete and the speed to compete,” Duran said. “But one of the main concerns was our offensive line. We had some lack of experience there. But they worked hard and got better in the offseason, and really came together. I can do nothing but praise them.”
Although on paper, this Robertson squad may be the least likely of its four straight title contenders to bring home the blue, it’s not going to be a pushover, Duran said.
“They’re scrappy,” he said. “They don’t give up. They play hard every down. Everybody goes to the ball. They have a good philosophy and a good system. To be in the state championship four years, you have to have something going and they do. They have a bunch of athletic kids that enjoy playing football and they’re aggressive.”
Robertson will be heading to Dexter today after Gonzalez receives a dialysis treatment in Albuquerque. It’s something the coach has endured three times a week since July as he awaits a kidney and pancreas transplant.
“We have weights at 5:45 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesday, and I’m not there,” he said. “My assistant coaches have a lot of responsibilities to take care of things. I’ll be getting my treatment at 5 in the morning (today) to make sure I get it done before I left.”