Coach: Brandon Back (7th year; 44-24)
Last season: 13-0, Class 6A state champions; beat Las Cruces in first round, beat Centennial in semifinals, beat Cleveland 33-14 in 6A final
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Key players: Connor O’Toole, sr. (6-4, 210, WR/MLB); Nas Robertson, sr. (5-8, 160, slot); Austin Smith, sr. (5-11, 140, QB); Barrett Haemker, sr. (5-11, 200, C/DL); Tristan Altier, sr. (5-9, 150, WR); Brad Thomas, jr. (6-2, 170, WR); Noah Woisin, sr. (5-10, 200, MLB); Caleb Marra, sr. (6-4, 200, DE); Ja’Shon Lowery, jr. (6-5, 180, DE); Jacob Carbajal, sr. (5-10, 155, S); Grant Harter, sr. (5-11, 170, CB).
Outlook: Certainly there is plenty to like here as the Bears, the Journal’s No. 2 selection in our top-5 metro countdown, open their title defense. We’ll start, however, with the biggest question mark: off of that stout defense, La Cueva graduated four, first-team All-State players, and it would be hard to imagine La Cueva not feeling at least some impact. Woisin should be a consistent presence in the middle, and the Bears have been looking to identify another playmaking linebacker to join him there. Carbajal is moving from corner to safety, and he will be a crucial piece, especially in the open field as Back proclaimed him La Cueva’s best tackler. The D-Line should be awfully quick, with Lowery and Marra bookending that front. Offensively, Smith is not carrying many pounds, but he is carrying a heavy burden. But he’s fashioned great chemistry with his receivers and can also tuck and run when need be. And he has that “it” factor, Back said. Running back took a hit recently with the leg injury to Tyler Jenson (who could return later this season), but senior Elijah Locke has been having a productive summer. Wide receiver is the deepest position on this team, led by O’Toole, the state’s most recruited football player, and Robertson. It was Robertson who led the Bears in catches (53), receiving yards (1,020) and touchdowns (11) last season. Thomas, the state triple jump champion, adds an exciting new vertical element. And all three of them will be able to stretch defenses. Three starters on the O-Line return, led by Haemker who was a first-team All-State selection last season, and Back is confident in that group. This remains one of New Mexico’s elite teams.
2019 schedule (x-denotes District 2/5-6A game)
Aug. 22, at Volcano Vista (C), 7 p.m.
Aug. 29, Valley (W), 7 p.m.
Sept. 6, at Las Cruces (FOD), 7 p.m.
Sept. 14, at Cibola (C), 1 p.m.
Sept. 20, Rio Rancho (W), 7 p.m.
Sept. 27, Albuquerque High (W), 7 p.m.
x-Oct. 4, at Manzano (W), 7 p.m.
x-Oct. 11, Eldorado (W), 7 p.m.
x-Oct. 25, at Sandia (W), 7 p.m.
x-Nov. 1, Clovis (W), 7 p.m.
Circle the date: Volcano Vista and Rio Rancho are A+ nondistrict matchups, but it’s the season finale against Clovis that has the potential to be a district championship showdown for both the Bears and the Wildcats, in what should be a super tough league.