New-look Rams batter way into Class 6A championship

Rio Rancho High School Football Offensive Lineman Ryan Ortiz, right , is seen during practice in preparation for the State Championships game against Cleveland High School. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Rio Rancho football coach David Howes, more than once this season, has been quick — even eager — to remind people that the Rams have strayed somewhat from their perceived philosophical norm on this trek to the state championship game.

“This team,” he said, “has had to really buckle down and be willing to live off four or five yards at a time. And that’s not like us.”

One of the reasons why Rio Rancho has been winning at a prodigious clip in the Howes era has been outstanding quarterbacking, an efficient pass-first offense, and an up-tempo philosophy that defenses have largely labored to repel.

But as the program prepares for its third state title game, the Class 6A final on Saturday (1 p.m.) at home against rival Cleveland, the Rams have evolved into what is perhaps 6A’s best grind-it-out bunch.

“Rio Rancho teams of the past? You’ll get the ball thrown 35, 40 times,” Storm coach Heath Ridenour said.

Just in the semifinals last week against previously unbeaten Volcano Vista, Rio Rancho ran the ball 62 times, versus 15 throws. The Rams that Ridenour referred to may have gone entire months of a season without running it 62 times. And it wasn’t just the 62 rushes; it was the 270 yards that went with it. The per-carry average was, admittedly, a very modest 4.4 yards, but Rio Rancho, with five drives of at least nine plays, kept that Volcano Vista defense on the field all afternoon.

“To establish a new identity, I’m just so pleased,” Howes said.

And for this work in the postseason, including a muscular 35-0 win over Las Cruces in the quarterfinals, Howes did what football coaches do — he pointed both his fingers emphatically to his offensive line.

“Those guys have really been our glue all year long,” he said. “That line has not gotten the credit they deserve.”

It’s a line with just two seniors, Tyler Barb and Ryan Ortiz. And it’s the first season for this unit, collectively. But under the supervision of Bob Stanley, Rio Rancho’s O-Line coach and a man with decades of college experience, the Rams are thriving in this postseason.

“It all starts with our coach, coach Stanley,” said Barb, who plays left tackle. “He has a lot of experience and he’s brought that down to us. We play as one unit and we truly believe we’re the best offensive line in the state right now.”

Stanley has coached the offensive line at Texas A&M, TCU, Vanderbilt, Texas, Purdue, Akron, Temple, Kansas State, SMU, Western Michigan — and New Mexico under Rocky Long.

“They’re very talented,” said Stanley, in his first season with Rio Rancho. “That’s the big thing. They’re good players. And good players execute what you teach.”

Said Howes: “He is a wonderful piece to our puzzle.”

Rio Rancho’s duo of quarterback Isaiah Chavez and tailback Zach Vigil have been the direct beneficiaries of the line’s work. Nearly two-thirds of every Rio Rancho snap this season has been a run play, with Vigil and Chavez logging the majority of the carries.

“There’s always room to improve,” said Ortiz, the right guard, “but as an offensive line, we’re united. We tell each other every day that we have each other’s backs, and we mean it.”

That line last week was at the center of a game-opening, 92-yard, 18-play drive that lasted nearly nine minutes and set a physical tone from the very start.

“That group of five won’t let anyone around them not work seriously,” Howes said. “From Day 1, that O-Line has been business.”

Stanley picked up on that right away, too.

“I don’t know what they had here before, but we have a tremendous work ethic,” he said. “And that goes to the head coach.”

Rio Rancho has rushed for 216 yards per game against an extremely demanding schedule.

“This group is jelling so well because they love each other,” said Chavez. “They joke around with each other, they make fat jokes with each other, but our line is the best in the state. I’m telling you that. Those guys make me so proud and keep me safe.”

And that’s their task for 48 more minutes, in the cauldron of a state final against their most hated rival.

“Cleveland is a very good team,” said Stanley. “When we played them last time (a 35-20 Storm victory on Nov. 1), I think our emotions entered into it too much and we did not execute. It’s been a simple week. In this game we’re gonna try to get on the right guy, and if we get on the right guy, let’s see how this game goes.

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