RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Heath Ridenour has a great memory, not only for games played by his Cleveland Storm (2012-19), but also the players and even some of the key plays.
In this first of two looks at each of Rio Rancho high schools’ “five most-memorable games,” Ridenour gave the Observer his keen memories.
2011: The Storm, then coached by Kirk Potter in his final season as head coach, went 13-0 and gained the moniker, “The Perfect Storm.”
“We set the state scoring record with 641 points,” he said. “(It) was a season filled with new opportunities and a chance for redemption. We lost two games in 2010 that didn’t sit well with this group. We lost a close one to Manzano when (quarterback Cole) Gautsche fumbled inside the 2 yard line in the final minutes of the game. We also lost to Mayfield in the quarterfinals to end our season. 2011 returned the majority of our team with a bitter taste and a hunger to prove to the state that Cleveland was a contender for the title.”
The Storm avenged that 2010 loss to Manzano, “67-35; it proved to be one of the most entertaining games we had that year.
“We had to beat our cross-town rivals (Rio Rancho High School) twice in 2011, which is never an easy task. Both games were very close games that had a play or two late in the game that ultimately determined the outcome. In the district championship, Gautsche had a wild snap that resulted in a safety and we were losing the game right away 2-0. I told Cole to relax, when was the last time we lost 2-0? Ironically, we won the game by 2 points 34-32.”
At the Field of Dreams for the state championship game, Ridenour recalled, “We were down 28-14 at the half; I will admit I was a bit down. Maybe this wasn’t our destiny. Maybe this wasn’t Cleveland’s time to become state champions.
“We got into the locker room and coach Potter changed the trajectory of the program for years to come. With 52 players, 14 coaches staring at him for guidance, he didn’t flinch and he didn’t yell. He said, ‘This is simple. Do you want the red trophy or do you want the blue trophy? There is no shame in playing in the state championship game. There is a lot to be proud of even if we get the red trophy, but it begs the question, do you want the red trophy or the blue trophy because the second half will not be determined by X’s and O’s. It is going to be determined by heart, guts, brotherhood and an unmatched desire to be a champion. Make your choice.’
“That speech, that locker room, that second half has fueled our program ever since,” Ridenour said, with the Storm coming home with the blue trophy and a 48-28 win — with Cleveland outscoring the host Trojans in the second half, 28-0..
Notable players in 2011: MLB Michael LiRosi, QB Cole Gautsche, RB Romell Jordan, DT/OL Matthew Romero, DT/OL Denzel Glover, TE/DE Reece White, TE Sterling Napier, DT Desmond Branch, DB Steven Steele and WR Jerome Gabryzewski. (Gautsche, Jordan, White, Napier, Branch and Steele played D-1 college football.)
2013: “Headed into my second year as the head coach, we were struggling to get out of the shadow of the 2011 season and the legendary coaches that left — players remembering what it was like with coach Potter, rather than me as their head coach, was an uphill battle, but in 2013 we had a group of guys that totally bought into the Storm (10-2) way, committed to the process and we experienced an amazing season with two very pivotal losses.” (17-16 to Sandia and 34-33 to Mayfield in a state semifinal, both at CHS.)
“We had a great core of leaders. We had a tandem at linebacker that will be hard to match in Mackay Dunlap and Josh Hinman; they led our defense to what is still statistically the best defense that Cleveland has ever had,” Ridenour said. “That is saying a lot, because we have had some defenses that have been rock solid. … We only gave up 13 points per game that season.”
Offensively, he noted, “2013 was the introduction of our first Nieto at running back. Jesse was a workhorse. As good as Romell was for us in 2011 and 2012, it was Jesse that set the standard for running back play at Cleveland.” (The other Nieto RBs were Shawn and Randy.)
“We finished the regular season 9-1 and district champions. We beat Rio Rancho in the district championship game with a second half of ground-and-pound,” he recalled. “Mackay Dunlap and Jesse Nieto took turns changing up the tempo and the dynamic at running back and we wore down a pretty good Rio Rancho defensive line.”
Gabe Ortega, who missed a PAT in the loss to Sandia, missed two PATs in the finale, the loss to Mayfield.
“They were a very good team,” Ridenour said of the Trojans. “Sterling Napier was knocked out of the game on the second drive and that proved to be the ultimate dagger for us. Our offense sputtered and our defense bent.
“This was the year that we learned special teams are vital and can win or lose football games, but we also learned that football is not about the destination, it is about the journey. The journey with that 2013 team will be one of my fondest memories of coaching when I hang it up and call it quits one day.”
2015: A season remembered as “Perfect Storm 2.0.”
“13-0; district champions; state champions — we set the state scoring record with 645 points,” Ridenour said. “In 2014, we had a few entitlement issues, ‘We should win just because we are CHS and we are talented.’ Well, that got us to 7-4 and a first-round loss to Cibola in the playoffs, 42-28.
“As miserable as that experience was, it fed our desire to achieve success in 2015. Thus, ‘Poor, Hungry and Driven’ was born.
“There was something about this group. The laser-sharp focus for even the smallest of things was present. Was it maturity? Was it a bit of embarrassment from 2014? Who knows what created this intense focus and attention to detail, but it led to one of the most dominant teams I have seen in New Mexico high school football in a number of years,” Ridenour lauded. “These seniors experienced the sensational leadership of 2013 and were putting that knowledge to work in 2015.
“The roster that season was full of talent: QB/FS Gabe Ortega, RBs Shawn Nieto and Landry Hayes, offensive linemen Nate Garcia, Santos Taylor, Henry Hattis, Leo Sykes, Daimon Altimirano and Anthony Franklin; WRs Justice Jackson and Marcus Williams, slot Ryan Anderson and TE Adam Cook.
“This is the group that proved that Cleveland was not a one-hit wonder and proved that ‘the process’ works.”
By the way, on the Storm sideline that championship Saturday, a 48-35 victory over visiting Eldorado, was NFL Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher.
2018: Another December, another championship game at Lightning Bolt Stadium … but this time a disappointing 33-14 loss to La Cueva.
“The 2018 team (12-1) was just a blue-collar group,” Ridenour said. “We had a lot of talent, but more than anything, we had guys that just worked hard and our success was a collective effort. The loss we had that season was, unfortunately, in the state championship game.
“It had been a number of years since two teams reached the state championship game undefeated. We were a very young group in 2018. We had numerous sophomores starting on both sides of the ball in very key positions; QB being one of those spots,” he said. “We had never played a sophomore quarterback before and Jeff Davison proved to be a great student of the game. Our RB, Dorian Lewis, was the newest and most exciting thing in New Mexico high school football.” (Lewis and his family moved here from El Paso before the season began.)
“When he went down with a knee injury against West Mesa, that was one of the hardest things to witness and to have to go through,” Ridenour said. “We still won the district championship; we still worked our way through the playoffs and made it to the state championship game. Up to that point, we were 12-0 with a very young team and without the best RB in the state.
“This team fought adversity and had a fantastic season. While the season didn’t end the way we had hoped, I am still very proud to have had the opportunity to play in the state championship game.”
2018’s notable players: Sophomores Davison, Ortega, Tre Watson, Luke Wysong and Estevan Pargas; juniors Lewis, Colten Madison and Tres Villalpando; and seniors Dion Hunter and Randy Nieto.
It became the season all of Rio Rancho’s prep sports fans, and maybe some other residents, had envisioned when Cleveland opened in 2009 — the city’s teams playing for all the marbles.
“2019 started about as bad as anyone could expect,” Ridenour lamented. “We were short five starters for the first game (and) Tre Watson broke his arm playing outside linebacker on the first play of the game. It almost felt as if we were cursed from the very beginning.
“As soon as you have that feeling of doubt, the power of the program came through yet again. We won the first game (Oñate) 50-0 at the half. We got some starters back, but we had to head down to El Paso to play El Paso Franklin,” Ridenour said. “They were arguably one of the absolute best teams we played all year. We battled our tails off and ended up losing the game, but as we left the stadium that night I told (defensive coordinator) Eddie Kilmer, ‘We lost the game, but we got better tonight. If we fight like that in every game this season, we will have a shot to win it all.’ And that is what this team will be known for until the end of time: The team that fought to the very bitter end regardless of the circumstances. That grit would be exactly what we needed to accomplish what we did.”
The Storm lost their chance to be District 1-6A champs for the third year in a row, thanks to a lopsided 35-7 loss to Volcano Vista, which wound up the No. 1 seed in the postseason.
“We started the district season with a 4-1 record, but on the second drive of the Atrisco game, our QB (Davison) suffered a separated right shoulder. Doubt crept into our mind for a minute, but the grit soon took over and we kept rolling,” Ridenour said. “Trey Ortega ended up playing five games for us at QB last season and did a great job. … (But) Tre Watson missed seven games and made his return against Volcano Vista. It was great to have him back, but we weren’t full strength. Jeff made his comeback against Rio Rancho (35-20 CHS victory in the regular-season finale), which proved to be pivotal in an important win.”
The third-seeded Storm headed to Clovis for a semifinal meeting, following a 21-16 victory over Centennial in the quarterfinals.
“The semifinal game against Clovis will go down as one of my absolute favorite games of my coaching career — two teams that were so very talented and coached so well,” he said. “We fought like hell to earn a spot in the state championship — blow after blow, hit after hit, score after score. Those kids on both teams battled. Ultimately, a third quarter punt by Clovis gave us the edge.
“On second and 24, Jeff threw a TD pass to Ortega — a 74-yard TD pass that sealed the game,” Ridenour said, calling it, “one of the top-five plays in the history of Cleveland football.”
As for the 6A title game, played at Rio Rancho Stadium, he said, it was “maybe the most-memorable state championship game of all time.”
“The weather was miserable — the conditions were less than decent, but that didn’t matter,” Ridenour continued. “The battle was on … it was evident that no one was going to back down. Dorian Lewis ended his career as the guy that would carry the load for us, just like he did against Clovis. Offensively, we were so close to perfection, except for two interceptions.
“Give credit where credit is due. That Rio Rancho defense made two really good plays to intercept those balls. Defensively, we battled and battled, but (Rams QB) Isaiah Chavez had no intention of losing that game. Back and forth; back and forth. Luke Wysong catches a critical deep-ball touchdown, much like the one Ortega caught against Clovis; Jeff was making play after play and Dorian was getting first down after first down.
“We scored our last touchdown and I put my arms around our defensive staff and I said, ‘It is time. One stop. Let’s win the state championship.’
“The Rams had a first-and-goal inside the 2 and the grit, toughness and perseverance showed up in our defense once again. … All of those adverse situations throughout the season paid major dividends in those final four plays, all made by linebackers: (in order) Tiger Muñoz, Nick Gutierrez, Colten Madison, and Tres Villalpando and David Murphy.
“I will never forget that goal-line stand — one of the best moments in Storm history,” Ridenour said.