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Yodice: Cleveland is best team of the decade, in every way

Players on the 2015 state championship Cleveland football team are shown taking the field. Cleveland, which also won a title in 2011, are the 2019 champs. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

By any statistical measurement, this decade of high school football in New Mexico’s largest classification unequivocally belonged to the Cleveland Storm.

The most important standard is championships, and Cleveland on Saturday won its third big-school title since 2010 in dispatching rival Rio Rancho. Those three are more than any other program in the large division during 2010-19. The Storm went 3-1 in state finals, following up perfect seasons in 2011 and 2015.

Rio Rancho (2014, 2016) and Las Cruces (2012, 2013) both won a pair of championships. Mayfield was the only other team besides Cleveland to reach four finals, but the Trojans lost all but one of them.

There are other columns that demonstrate Cleveland’s supremacy.

The Storm bagged 101 victories in the last 10 seasons, more than anyone else. Las Cruces (94) and Rio Rancho (83) were second and third on that list.

Cleveland won 83.5 percent of its games during the last 10 years, going 101-20. Those 20 losses are nine fewer than anyone else; Las Cruces finished with 29.

Cleveland also didn’t have a single losing season the entire decade. No one else can claim that. Las Cruces had nine winning seasons and one .500 season. Mayfield had eight winning seasons, one losing season and one .500 season.

The Storm also had seven seasons with at least 10 victories, including the last five in a row. Las Cruces had five, Mayfield four.

From any vantage point, this was brilliant, consistent football. Which makes Cleveland winning this latest blue trophy in its home city so poetic.

“I think we gave the city of Rio Rancho and the state of New Mexico exactly what they wanted to see in the state championship game,” Cleveland coach Heath Ridenour said following the 48-40 victory.

From my chair, that was one of the best title games of the decade, along with Las Cruces’ 27-26 win over Mayfield in 2013, and Rio Rancho’s 33-31 victory over Mayfield in 2014.

“It was great for the city,” a gracious Rams coach David Howes said Saturday. “But they deserve it.”

FITTING CURTAIN DROPPER: Cleveland tailback Dorian Lewis ended his career with a pair of 200-yard games in the semifinals and the final. He scored nine combined touchdowns, including five on Saturday.

“I’m glad we have him back there,” his friend and Storm receiver, Tre Watson, said.

Lewis had 67 combined carries the last two weeks; all that load management Ridenour did with Lewis during the first two-thirds of the season paid off in a big way in November. Lewis – already highly motivated because he missed last year’s playoffs – was running on fresh, hungry legs.

“I told him he’d get every bit of 30 carries (Saturday),” Ridenour said. “If he goes, we go.”

He went. Cleveland went.

LOOKING AHEAD: To say Cleveland will open the 2020 season as the favorite is putting it mildly. Just on the offensive side of the ball, the Storm return virtually all its impact skill-position athletes, everyone but Lewis. That includes quarterback Jeff Davison, receivers Watson and Trevon Dennard, plus gifted all-around athletes like Luke Wysong and Trey Ortega.

Rio Rancho, of course, will remain relevant, though the Rams do have to replace their senior quarterback, Isaiah Chavez.

Thinking about the other two semifinalists, Clovis surely is going to be one of 6A’s favorites next year, with QB Chance Harris and tailback Jeston Webskowski both returning. The Wildcats are trending upward.

Volcano Vista? The climb back to this level won’t be easy. The Hawks were loaded with seniors this year; if Volcano Vista couldn’t get to a state championship game with this group, it makes you wonder what kind of team the Hawks will need, exactly, to break through.

PARTING THOUGHT: Congratulations to each of the seven state champions. Roswell (5A), Portales (4A), Hope Christian (3A), Eunice (2A), Melrose (8-Man) and Springer/Maxwell (6-Man) also claimed titles. Roswell finished as the state’s only undefeated team. For Hope, it was a first state championship, and was part of a final day of the season that saw all four road teams prevail.

Hope’s story is really quite astonishing, and I’ll retell a small portion of it here.

I still recall that early Monday morning in August 2009, when the Huskies practiced football for the very first time. Probably four out of every five kids on the field that day had never even played the sport before.

And while this blue trophy is as much for all of those kids who laid the foundation as it is the athletes in uniform Saturday in Socorro, there is one person that deserves a special mention.

His name is Jordan White. It is believed that his unofficial petition, roughly 11 years ago, was what got Hope Christian’s program off the ground. He got a few dozen signatures from students who supported his idea of the school adding football. One Hope student went and told her father about the petition. It’s wrong that her school didn’t have football, she told her dad.

That man was Darrel Kindig, and he would eventually become Hope’s first head football coach. He was then a 44-year-old retired state cop, owner of multiple businesses and a senior pastor at two dozen churches in Africa.

He went to Hope’s administrators, and told them it could work, that he could make it work, laid out the blueprint and showed them how. They agreed. Kindig eventually put most of the rest of his life on hold while he coached that first Huskies team.

A decade later, Hope Christian is a state champion. What a script.

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