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Prep football: Storm-Rams rivalry one of state’s finest

Rio Rancho coach David Howes, center, has his team in the Class 6A final against Cleveland.

It was going to happen sooner or later, Rio Rancho and Cleveland in a state football championship game.

If it wasn’t this year, it would have happened next year, or the year after, or five years down the road. But it was coming. And will happen again, probably sooner rather than later.

These two schools have both chalked up two undefeated, blue trophy-winning seasons in this decade. Cleveland in 2011 and 2015, Rio Rancho in 2014 and 2016. Which makes Saturday’s Class 6A state final — 1 p.m. at Rio Rancho — a de facto contest for No. 1 program of the decade.

Bigger picture, there is an internal debate raging within me about how this Storm-Rams final should, or should not, alter any unofficial ranking of New Mexico’s best rivalry games.

Is Rio Rancho-Cleveland the best football rivalry in the state? If you are judging based solely on the quality of the teams involved, then yes. The recency bias, a thing that can often be extremely annoying, would point in that direction, too.

But generally speaking, the answer is still no.

Rio Rancho-Cleveland is the hottest rivalry, insomuch as their 2010-19 résumés, and their proximity to the state’s largest metro area, are concerned.

The Rose Bowl doesn’t always have the two best teams, but there’s a reason it’s considered the granddaddy and draws more eyeballs than any bowl game outside of the playoffs. For that reason, Mayfield-Las Cruces retains, and maybe always will retain, the No. 1 ranking on any New Mexico list. The greatest prep football rivalries in New Mexico have strong, and decades-long, footholds in their communities. Cleveland and Rio Rancho have only been going at each other for 10 years.

That aside, I am curious to see how the city of Rio Rancho — notorious for its apathy toward athletic endeavors — responds on Saturday in what are expected to be frigid conditions.

The greatness of a rivalry is directly related to how much value it has to the two cities — or in this case, the two schools — involved. The quality of the football is a part of the equation, but longevity carries more weight.

Now, if someday a Rio Rancho-Cleveland championship game attracts a crowd of 27,000 people, as the Las Cruces-Mayfield final of 2013 did at Aggie Memorial Stadium, then we can revisit this.

Having said that, Cleveland — or Rio Rancho North, as it is often referred to by Rio Rancho — and the Rams in the final brings more shine to this rivalry than anything that’s come before.

FIRST TIMER: No member of the Cleveland Storm had to be more thrilled about reaching the title game than senior running back Dorian Lewis.

A year ago, the Storm’s stud had to sit out all of the postseason because of a knee injury suffered in a late regular-season game against West Mesa. But he rushed for 200-plus yards in the semifinals against Clovis last week.

“We’re finally hitting on all cylinders now,” he said.

Lewis and Clovis junior Jeston Webskowski staged a thrilling duel Friday, with Webskowski rushing for 282 yards and five touchdowns, and Lewis scoring four TDs.

I asked Lewis his impression of Webskowski.

“Oh man, he’s the truth,” Lewis said. “I won’t be surprised if he wins Gatorade (Player of the Year) next year — or even this year. That kid is gonna be a big name next year.”

Didn’t learn this until the night of the game, but Lewis’ mother is from Clovis.

ALL IN THE FAMILY: Socorro is hosting the 3A state championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday against Hope Christian, as the Warriors chase their first state title since 1977.

Head coach Damien Ocampo — older brother Aaron is Centennial’s head coach — has surrounded himself with family this year. His father Al Ocampo, a longtime New Mexico coaching patriarch who is a former head coach at Gadsden and Socorro, has been helping his son with the Warriors. Chuck Zimmerly, a member of the coaching staff on that 1977 team, also has been lending a hand.

“(My dad) is a utility guy,” said Damien Ocampo, a former quarterback at New Mexico State and Western New Mexico. “He’s a position coach, but between him and Chuck, they are doing a lot of it together.

“These guys go way back,” Damien said. “I’m pretty blessed to have all this help. We just have tons of lineage on our staff.”

There is also has a cousin, Luis Calzada, serving as an assistant coach.

TICKET UPDATE: For fans who want to attend the Rio Rancho-Cleveland game Saturday, pay attention:

Both schools’ athletic department offices will be selling tickets from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. on Tuesday. That will be the last chance fans can buy them in person until Saturday.

The New Mexico Activities Association will be selling them online. Go to Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for seniors/students/military. Rio Rancho Public Schools athletic director Larry Chavez said Monday that the Rio Rancho High ticket window is expected to open at 11:15 a.m. Saturday.

There are 6,100 seats at the stadium, but the number swells to 7,000 with standing room.

Also, bags — pretty much anything except a purse or diaper container — will not be allowed.

OFFERS ADDING UP: Los Lunas junior defensive end Tyler Kiehne has picked up two Power 5 Conference offers in the last week, from Wisconsin and Washington State. Kiehne and the Tigers are hosting the 5A title game Saturday against Roswell.

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