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Feuding with the neighbor: It’s Rio Rancho-Cleveland for 6A title

Quarterback Jeff Davison  leads Cleveland against Rio Rancho. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Rio Rancho’s quarterback Isaiah Chavez, diving for a score against La Cueva earlier this season, leads his team. ( Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

During their decade of being high school rivals, there’s almost nothing Rio Rancho and Cleveland haven’t done – except for the thing they are doing together on Saturday.

One box that hadn’t been checked? Meeting in a state championship game.

“It’s a Cleveland-Rio rivalry game,” Rio Rancho senior quarterback Isaiah Chavez said. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s gonna be one heck of a game.”

Across every major team sport, the Storm and Rams have paired up for countless memorable encounters since Cleveland opened its doors in 2009 – but never on a scale approximating this. At 1 p.m. Saturday, the schools, separated by just 5½ miles, collide for the Class 6A state football title.

“I’m really expecting the community to take advantage of this,” Rams coach David Howes said. “When you have a two-horse town, and they’re both in the race, it’s exciting.”

While No. 3 seed Cleveland (10-2) is appearing in its second straight state final and third since 2015, No. 4 seed Rio Rancho (8-4) is a less conventional finalist. The Rams, in fact, are the first four-loss team to reach the big-school title game since Mayfield in 2010.

“Every time we play them, you go in with a game plan, and then you have to throw that out the window and just play the game,” Cleveland coach Heath Ridenour said.

This is the first time this decade that neither of the top two seeds made it to the season’s final game in the largest classification.

The rivals met on Nov. 1 at Rio Rancho, with Cleveland scoring the final 28 points and winning 35-20. Oddly enough, that was the Storm’s fifth straight win on the Rams’ field. They’ll be back at Rio Rancho for the rematch.

Rio Rancho hasn’t beaten Cleveland at home in 10 years.

The most recent meeting was noteworthy because it marked the return of Storm junior quarterback Jeff Davison, who missed a few games with a shoulder injury but spearheaded a comeback after Rio Rancho scored the game’s first 13 points.

It was Davison last week, in a thrilling semifinal in Clovis, who threw a perfect 70-yard touchdown pass in the waning minutes to Trey Ortega to secure a 56-43 victory.

“Can’t be satisfied,” Cleveland senior running back Dorian Lewis said after a 32-carry, 204-yard, four-TD effort in Clovis. “Gotta keep going.”

Rio Rancho was mightily impressive in dispatching No. 1 Volcano Vista 48-30 in the semifinals, a game the Rams never trailed.

“We can’t lose the turnover battle,” Howes said. “We lost (it) the last time we played. We have to do a better job of taking care of the football and sustaining that for four quarters.”

The schools have only met one other time in the football playoffs, in 2011.

That game, like this one, will feature a large number of impact athletes, particularly on offense.

It’s Davison, Lewis, Luke Wysong, Tre Watson and Ortega for the Storm. It’s Chavez, tailback Zach Vigil and receivers Tyrese Watson and Nick Rotert for the Rams.

“They have a perimeter balance that puts teams in a bind,” Howes said of Cleveland, which played at a furious pace against Clovis last week, giving the Wildcats fits.

The more methodical Rams counter with a pair of 1,000-yard runners in Chavez and Vigil, who have been sensational all season. In the playoffs, the Rams have had 95 running plays versus 33 pass plays. (Top individual stats for both teams accompany this story.)

“They do a good job of managing time, shortening the game and limiting possessions,” Ridenour said.

Chavez gets plenty of credit for that in managing this efficient offense.

“There’s no magic pill we can give these kids to get the job done,” Ridenour said of his defense. “They have to go tackle the football. End of the day, Rio Rancho is a really good team.”

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