(Today’s preview kicks off the Journal’s countdown of the top five teams in the metro area ahead of Thursday’s season openers.)
Coach: David Howes (11th year; 82-36)
Last season: 4-7; lost to Manzano in 6A first round
Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense
Key players: Isaiah Chavez, sr. (6-1, 174, QB); Jasper Pennington, jr. (5-9, 165,
S); Tommy Lujan, jr. (5-9, 160, DB/slot); Zach Vigil, soph. (5-9, 168, RB/CB); Jaylan Smith, sr. (6-0, 200, LB/FB); Jeramiah Esquibel, sr. (5-10, 170, LB); Tyler Woisin, sr. (5-9, 195, LB); Darrius Gregory, jr. (5-11, 235, OL/DL); Cayden Romero, soph. (6-4, 265, OL/DL); Tyler Barb, sr. (6-3, 215, OL/DL).
Outlook: If 2018 seemed to be not your typical Rio Rancho football season, you’d be right. The Rams finished under .500 for the first time since 2010, which was also the last time they failed to reach at least the playoff quarterfinals. “We’re trying to re-establish a hunger that had been lost last year,” Howes said. Fortunately, he’s got an outstanding quarterback in Chavez, who is among the top athletes at that position — over 2,200 passing yards and 24 TDs last year, and skilled in extending plays, to boot — in Class 6A and someone Howes rates as a true passer but also an effective runner. In seniors Tyrese Watson, who excelled in the scrimmage versus Eldorado, and Nick Rotert, the Rams have two receivers over 6-feet. Lujan is a versatile slot, and Vigil is this team’s top returning running back. Howes has high hopes for his O-Line, which has three starters back. On defense, where Rio Rancho struggled to stop the run last year, Esquibel led the Rams in tackles and was one of the best at that in the state last season. Woisin — whose cousin Noah plays for La Cueva; the two meet in Week 5 — missed last season with an injury but started at linebacker as a sophomore. Lujan is the key player in the defensive backfield. Depth, Howes said, is probably Rio Rancho’s largest concern as the Rams — the Journal’s No. 5 in the metro countdown — hope to challenge Cleveland and Volcano Vista for supremacy in District 1-6A.
2019 schedule (x-denotes District 1-6A game)
Aug. 23, Centennial, 7 p.m.
Aug. 30, at Pine Creek, Colo., 7 p.m.
Sept. 6, Clovis, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13, at Las Cruces (FOD), 1 p.m.
Sept. 20, at La Cueva (W), 7 p.m.
x-Oct. 4, Cibola, 7 p.m.
x-Oct. 10, at West Mesa (C), 7 p.m.
x-Oct. 18, Atrisco Heritage, 7 p.m.
x-Oct. 26, at Volcano Vista (C), 1 p.m.
x-Nov. 1, Cleveland, 7 p.m.
Circle the date: This is an extremely demanding slate of games; Rio Rancho could be 0-5 before district and still be one of the top teams in 6A. The visit from Clovis in Week 3 might be the best early indication of where the Rams stand.