Just before he walked up the concrete ramp to a waiting bus late in the afternoon of Oct. 26 at Nusenda Community Stadium, Rio Rancho High School football coach David Howes had a parting thought. And, under the circumstances, hardly a surprising one.
Paraphrasing what he said, it went like this: “We can’t wait to play them again.”
And here we are.
The Class 6A football semifinals, for the third straight year, feature the top four seeds. No. 3 Cleveland (9-2) and No. 2 Clovis (9-2) meet at 7 p.m. Friday at Leon Williams Stadium. No. 1 Volcano Vista (11-0) and No. 4 Rio Rancho square off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Community Stadium, and the memories of the Hawks’ wild 51-43 win over the Rams a month ago remain fresh for all concerned.
“We want to play those guys,” Rio Rancho senior quarterback Isaiah Chavez said, “but we have our hands full. We know that.”
Their first meeting saw Volcano Vista race out to a 51-20 lead late in the third quarter, then hold on under the weight of a frantic Rio Rancho comeback. The Rams had one touchdown in that game negated by penalty, and fumbled a yard from the Hawks’ goal line as they were going in for a score on another possession. So it’s only natural that Rio Rancho was eager for Round 2 with Volcano Vista.
“They’re a good team, but as long as we come out like we did in the fourth quarter in the first game, we got it,” Rams linebacker Tyler Woisin said.
Chavez has been electric for Rio Rancho, throwing for 1,820 yards and 21 touchdowns, and rushing for 1,104 yards and 15 TDs. Tailback Zach Vigil has been solid for the Rams, rushing for 957 yards and 16 scores.
Chavez spearheaded the comeback in the first game, wearing down the Volcano Vista defense in the process.
“We either got tired or lost momentum,” Hawks coach Chad Wallin said. “And that quarterback does that to you.”
The Rams dug themselves too large a hole in the first three quarters, as Volcano Vista’s offense put up 650 yards that day, including 340 on the ground and a terrific 21-of-25, 310-yard performance from Hawks QB Diego Pavia, who also rushed for 129 yards in a spectacular dual-threat performance.
Pavia, with not even half a season due to an ankle injury, has thrown for 1,239 yards and 11 touchdowns, and rushed for nine TDs. His two running backs, Isaac Chavez and Jimmy Gallegos, have combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 21 scores.
“They’re a juggernaut with the seniors they have and what they’re doing offensively and defensively,” Rio Rancho coach David Howes said. “But at the end of the day, you want a chance at redemption and a chance to correct the mistakes you made. You’re gonna win the title, you gotta play the best, and right now that’s them.”
As for playing a district rival a second time, Wallin said he knew how to approach the week.
“The best thing is not to out-think yourself,” he said. “We have to play to our strengths.”
CLEVELAND-CLOVIS: Storm coach Heath Ridenour and Wildcats coach Cal Fullerton have been best friends for about 15 years after meeting as students at Eastern New Mexico. They even served together as assistants for five seasons on Eric Roanhaus’ staff in Clovis. Fullerton said this week he almost interviewed for a job on Ridenour’s coaching staff at Cleveland two years before he took over for Roanhaus.
This will be the biggest home game in at least a decade for the city of Clovis and its beloved football program.
“It really is,” Fullerton said. “There’s a really good buzz right now in the town, and a whole lot of people are excited. It’s been a while (2009) since we’ve been this far.”
A fully healthy Cleveland roster rides into Clovis hoping to get back into the state final, where it lost a year ago to La Cueva.
“They remind me a lot of the Volcano Vista group,” Ridenour said. “They’re bigger than everyone else we’ve played on the D-Line. But the thing that sets them apart is how athletic they are offensively.”
As with the Rio Rancho-Volcano Vista semi, this matchup also features a pair of extremely versatile and game-changing quarterbacks in the Storm’s Jeff Davison and the Wildcats’ Chance Harris (Clovis averages over 15 yards per reception), who both are juniors. Each has multiple, and sometimes large, targets at their disposal, led by Tre Watson of Cleveland and Malik Phillips of Clovis, the latter having caught 70 balls, 16 for touchdowns.
Harris and Davison both missed a big chunk of the regular season with injuries, but returned just prior to the playoffs.
“The thing that makes Chance tough to defend,” said Ridenour, himself a former college QB, “is that he has that ‘X’ factor ability, where you don’t always know what he’s going to do. Even Cal doesn’t always know what he’s going to do.”
There are also two stellar tailbacks going at it, with Cleveland senior Dorian Lewis (1,130 yards and 17 touchdowns) and Clovis junior Jeston Webskowski (1,412 yards and 22 TDs).
“That’s our No. 1 priority, stopping the run,” Fullerton said. “With him in the backfield, that is a huge task.”
STATE FINAL LOCATION: If Clovis and Volcano Vista win, or if Cleveland and Volcano Vista win, the title game is at Community Stadium. If Clovis and Rio Rancho win, the final is at Leon Williams Stadium in Clovis. If Cleveland and Rio Rancho win, the championship game is at RRHS.