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Rio Rancho High School’s 5 most-memorable seasons

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Last week, the Observer featured Cleveland High’s five most-memorable seasons. Today, it’s time for the Rams’ five best.

David Howes is no longer the head coach of the Rio Rancho High School football team, but the Rams enjoyed some of their best campaigns during his 11-year stint on the sidelines.

Thus, he’s still the best source to recall RRHS’s five most-memorable football seasons of all time.

2011: After a disappointing 4-7 season in 2010, the only losing mark in Howes’ 11 seasons on the Rams’ sideline, RRHS made it into the postseason as the 1-5A runner-up and the 5 seed.

The Rams whipped visiting Alamogordo, 56-34, in a first-round game played in Rio Rancho, then hit the road for a semifinal game at the Field of Dreams against Las Cruces.

“(The 2011 season is memorable) because that was the first year that we not only beat Las Cruces, but we beat them in double-overtime in Las Cruces, and went on to play the Storm,” Howes said.

Austin Patterson caught a pass in the end zone in that second overtime session in that semifinal, and giving the visiting fifth-seeded Rams a 48-41 lead, and the defense came onto the field to preserve the lead.

That meant the Rams, who had trailed the Bulldawgs 24-10 at halftime, would meet No.1 Cleveland will meet in the first Class 5A semifinal to be played in the City of Vision. Cleveland outlasted the Rams, 34-32, in their regular-season meeting, the District 1-5A championship game, at Rio Rancho Stadium on Nov. 3.

The Storm advanced to the semifinal after mauling the Bears of La Cueva, 41-13.

“We told them at halftime, ‘This is our season — we traveled a long way,'” Howes said he told his team. “The staff stayed steadfast on the game plan. We didn’t tweak things, (but) we tightened some technical things up. ‘One play at a time; keep working.’ There’s no quit in them.”

That Jason Fitzpatrick-to-Connor Brown TD was set up by a 35-yard Fitzpatrick-to-Patterson aerial, which got the ball to the 5 on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Then, Fitzpatrick’s low pass to Patterson, who made an outstanding catch in keeping the pigskin off the ground, came on second down, with Carlos Garcia adding the PAT. Las Cruces went nowhere on its last gasp, with Frankie Morlock batting down a fourth-down pass on the final play of the season for the Bulldawgs.

But, as had happened earlier in the season in their game with the Storm, the Rams choked away a 14-0 lead and went on to lose to the Storm, 42-28.

That game was only 21 seconds old when the Rams scored on a 34-yard scamper by Ulises Astorga.

Later in the quarter, after Cleveland went three-and-out, the Rams, finishing 9-4, used a seven-play, 55-yard drive to take a 14-0 lead.

But by game’s end, it was the Cole Gautsche Show: 13 of 23 passing for 239 yards; 16 rushes for 137 yards; four touchdown passes, two each to Reece White and Sterling Napier; a 30-yard run for a TD; two points-after booted; two 2-point conversion passes to White; and two TD-saving tackles on the game-opening kickoff and a fourth-quarter punt.

The Storm headed to Las Cruces and used a second-half rally to complete their 13-0 season, posting a 48-28 victory over Mayfield.

2012: Memorable, says Howes, because, “This is the first year in Rio Rancho history we were ranked no. 1 — not to start, but after we beat Las Cruces (42-21) at our homecoming. Then, we lost our starting tailback and lost to Volcano Vista. (Shades of 2019, when VVHS was No. 1 in the postseason and lost at home to the Rams.)

It was a dream season, highlighted by Rio Rancho racking up what was then a school-record seven-game winning streak.

But the Hawks had other plans, it seemed, in their quarterfinal contest at Rio Rancho Stadium, scoring a touchdown on a flea-flicker pass to pull within one point of the Rams, then using a 2-point conversion run to stun the Rams (9-2), 25-24.

“We were in a zone coverage and didn’t make the play on defense,” Howes said. “We had two guys there to make it and neither one of them made it and gave them some life there at the end. And we had a chance to stop the 2-point conversion and fell short there, too.”

The Hawks, who lost an exciting 37-34 game to the Rams at Milne Stadium on Oct. 27, scored on their last possession of the first half and their last possession of the game.

After a scoreless third quarter, Rio Rancho’s Dallin Brady fielded a punt on his own 34 and returned it into the end zone. Carlos Garcia’s PAT gave the Rams a 24-17 lead; just 6:40 remained in regulation.

Later, a four-yard pass completion, followed by two incomplete passes, left the Hawks with a fourth-and-six — and the Rams stopped the Hawks. Or did they? The Rams were flagged for defensive holding, giving the Hawks a first down, and they took advantage of it to quickly score another touchown.

Down 25-24, the Hawks gambled: The 2-point conversion could mean a win, but if they were stopped by the Rams’ defense, it could mean a loss. And a PAT would probably have meant overtime.

Jerome Chavez took a handoff from Hendricks and went into the end zone, almost untouched, and the game was all but over.

The Rams picked up a couple of first downs on what turned out to be their final possession of 2012 and QB Easton Bruere was sacked twice. On fourth and 28, Bruere threw a “Hail Mary” pass that was intercepted.

The season-high six turnovers included interceptions thrown by Bruere, a sophomore, ending three consecutive possessions. Bruere entered the game as the top quarterback in Class 5A, with 29 TD passes and just 10 picks through 10 games.

2014: In what had been an exciting back-and-forth Class 6A championship football game at Rio Rancho Stadium on a chilly Friday night, the difference came down to a snap over the Mayfield punter’s head.

Running the table and finishing 13-0, the Rams’ potent offense scored 40 or more points in 10 of their games, with 63 and 64 in home wins over Santa Fe and Eldorado, respectively. And they even beat the Storm, 24-22, to claim the City of Vision championship trophy.

After a 41-23 rout of visiting Las Cruces in a quarterfinal game, followed by that explosive, 64-23, whipping of Eldorado in the semifinals, Mayfield became the next visitor to Rio Rancho Stadium.

The Trojans had ended Rams’ runs in the playoffs three times previously, all at the Field of Dreams. This was Mayfield’s debut at Rio Rancho Stadium.

And that fatal gaffe, coming with 1:32 left in the season, turned what had been a deadlock at 31 into a 33-31 victory for the Rams.

“I think it’s only fitting after the offense did what they did all year long, and for the defense to be able to show what a backbone they have and what a great unit they are,” Howes said.

It had looked bleak for a moment or two: The Rams were driving deep into Mayfield (12-2) territory when Bruere had a pass picked off by Isaac Figueroa at the goal line. Instead of downing the ball in the end zone, which would have put the Trojans at the 20, he opted to run with it and was tackled at the 2.

There was 2:39 left in the fourth quarter, with the Trojans — having already amassed almost 300 rushing yards and 97 passing yards — owning the ball.

The Rams’ defense turned that errant pick into the game-winning two points, stopping Isaac Vance for what initially appeared to be a safety, with his forward progress ruled down at the 1.

Quarterback Kawika Johnson carried the ball on a keeper, but was stopped at the 3; a short pass on third down was incomplete. On fourth down, punter Jesse Jimenez had no chance of catching a snap over his head and out of the end zone for a safety and a 33-31 Rams’ lead.

The Rams covered the attempted onsides kick and ran out the clock.

Bruere had a memorable 374-yard, three-TD pass night.

2016: Two seasons after racking up a 13-0 campaign and the program’s first state championship, the Rams did it again.

With a rugged defense and an offense putting up a lot of points — 31 or more in every game, including six of 46 or more six times — they were rarely threatened.

Rolling through 1-6A with all four wins over their district foes by 14 or more points, the Rams headed into the postseason with the No. 1 seed. The roll also included a win at Cleveland, 42-28, in another three-TD game by Josh Foley.

He had his name mentioned countless times on the PA system: four TDs in a home win over Cibola, five in the 52-28 regular-season finale win over Piedra Vista.

Foley, the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, crossed the goal line three times in a 48-0 rout of Oñate in the quarterfinal round.

Foley found the end zone three more times in the Rams’ 35-7 rout of Manzano in the semifinals — a bit closer than their 64-27 homecoming whipping of the Monarchs in the regular season.

Guess who scored three more TDs in the 39-17 come-from-behind win over Las Cruces in the championship game.

Foley scored 40 TDs that season and was looking for great things to follow at New Mexico State University. (He’s now a Lobo.)

                                       Easton Bruere, record-setting QB

Last November began with a Storm victory on the first at Rio Rancho Stadium, and ended with a Storm victory there on the 30th as Cleveland’s 48-40 victory on a cold Saturday afternoon gave the Storm their third state title.

The Rams gave it all they had, and then some: The Rams (9-5) had a pair of 100-yard rushers, as QB Isaiah Chavez had 190 yards on 24 carries and tailback Zach Vigil added 190 yards on 30 carries; the two combined for six TDs.

But it turned out to be the sixth win in a row for the Storm (11-2) at RRHS, where they haven’t lost since the teams’ inaugural meeting in 2009. Two of the Rams’ previous most-memorable games had included wins at CHS.

This meeting was all offense, with senior Dorian Lewis scoring four rushing touchdowns and another on a pass from quarterback Jeff Davison. He finished with 231 rushing yards on 35 carries.

“It was an offensive battle the whole game; defenses were scratchin’ to stay alive,” Howes said. “At the end of the day, they made one more play than we did.”

He was referring to his team’s final offensive play of the season: Fourth and goal on the Cleveland 1, with just more than a minute to go.

Chavez hands off to Vigil, leveled for a 4-yard loss by the Storm’s David Murphy and Tres Villalpando.

“We had the position to go in and try to tie it — there’s no guarantee there,” Howes said. “Obviously, every point was gonna matter, every possession was gonna matter, and certainly a defensive stop was going to settle this thing.”

At the 1 p.m. kickoff, it was 38 degrees with a 23 mph wind out of the west, making it unlikely anybody was going to win this one with a field goal, it appeared. As it turned out, the brisk wind made a few points-after miss their marks.

Late in the game, a 48-yard TD pass from Davison to Luke Wysong put the Storm up by seven, and the Rams just missed tying it again when Chavez went in from the 7, but Zach Benedict’s PAT missed, for 41-40.

Lewis then scored on a 4-yard run for the season’s final TD, capping a quick, 5-play, 62-yard drive.

That set the stage for the Rams’ final possession of the season, with Chavez breaking loose on a third-down play for a 37-yard run to the Storm’s 15. Six plays later, including an end-over-end tumble by Chavez to the 1, Vigil was thwarted by the Storm’s D and the game was all but over as the Storm could just run out the clock.

The Storm slid into the championship game for the second year in a row after a 56-43 victory at No. 2 Clovis on Nov. 22. The Rams got there after an impressive 48-30 rout of No. 1 Volcano Vista on Nov. 23.

Interestingly, it was the fifth time in the last six seasons the 6A championship game has been contested in Rio Rancho: The Rams beat Mayfield and Las Cruces, respectively, to complete perfect 13-0 seasons in 2014 and ’16; the Storm were 13-0 after they beat visiting Eldorado in the 2015 title game, and La Cueva spoiled Cleveland’s bid for a third state championship in 2018.

“It was the most hard-fought, hard-coached to get to the state finals, almost a culmination of all 10 seasons,” said Howes. “Our decade of work came down to what we had to do week in and week out.

“By far, it was my most-memorable season – and, obviously, my son playing for us and making the first tackle in the state championship game, and being may last season, then and falling short at the 1-yard-line,” Howes added. “We had the hardest schedule in New Mexico. It shows the heart, the discipline of our program. I was so proud of the season.”

It was almost a season without Howes: He had been chasing the head-coaching job at Hamilton High in Chandler, Ariz., then withdrew before the season started. He also had a chance to join his brother-in-law, Danny Gonzalez, at Arizona State, but wanted to stay at RRHS at least one more year.

Shortly after the championship game, Howes accepted Gonzalez’s offer to join him on the staff at the University of New Mexico, after Gonzalez was hired to replace embittered Bob Davie. Howes is the safeties coach for the Lobos, where Chavez decided to become a preferred walk-on.

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