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Sandia, Cruces Match Up

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Matadors are seeking their first state championship since 1976

Sandia High School is very much the geographic center on Albuquerque’s prep football map. Strange, then, that the Matadors have, for most of the past 35 years, trudged along as one of the city’s true enigmas.

Around Sandia’s perimeter, blue trophies abound. La Cueva to the north, Cleveland out west, Eldorado to the east, Highland to the south. Each with at least one state football championship since Sandia’s last title in 1976.

Two generations later, Sandia makes a much-ballyhooed return to prep football’s grandest stage.

With the eager, anxious eyes of Big Red Nation on them, the Matadors tonight will play for the Class 5A crown when they take on Las Cruces at 7 at Wilson Stadium.

“They’re a good football team,” Las Cruces coach Jim Miller said. “They’re playing well, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. They’re not in the finals for no reason.”

It is the Matadors’ first championship game since 1977.

“I feel like the pressure is on us,” Sandia linebacker Tyler Ireland said. “We can’t afford one mistake with these guys.”

Second-seeded Las Cruces (10-1) fulfilled preseason expectations by arriving at this destination, and the Bulldawgs are after their first championship since 2008. Sandia, the No. 4 seed, didn’t win its own district, but the Matadors (9-3) made their bones with a fairly stout defense, and an offense that doesn’t dazzle or sizzle, but nevertheless gets the job done.

“They’re a great team. They’ve got great size, and they run the ball good,” said Las Cruces defensive end Kamryn Dixon, who also plays a featured role in the Bulldawgs’ offense, as a blocking and (occasionally) ball-catching tight end. “It’s gonna be a battle. It’s gonna be a war. It’s not gonna be a blowout.”

Las Cruces’ 10 wins have been by an average of 31.6 points, and the Bulldawgs average 504 yards a game (275 rush, 229 pass).

“They’re not gonna be able to stop us,” Las Cruces junior running back Austin Salas said firmly. “I don’t think they’ve seen an offense like ours yet.”

Sandia is in full agreement with the second half of that statement.

“They move the ball well because of their size and speed,” Ireland said.

Las Cruces averages about 275 pounds along the offensive line, Sandia about 260 along the defensive front. It is there, Sandia coach Kevin Barker said, that tonight’s most important battles will be waged.

“They’ve got some big, physical kids up front, good linebackers and good athletes in the secondary,” Las Cruces’ Miller said.

Sandia’s defense was sparked last week by junior linebacker Camrron Bean – who had five sacks, two forced fumbles and one recovered fumble in the semifinals against Volcano Vista. The Bulldawgs were in the stands at Milne last week to watch Sandia.

“We definitely have to be aware of where he’s at and stay on him,” Miller said of Bean. “He runs down plays. He’s definitely got a motor on him.”

The Bulldawgs often like to run two tight-end sets, with Dixon on one side and Sam Denmark on the other, to bookend what is already a huge O-line. Salas and J.J. Granados – and quarterback Jonathan Joy – are all efficient runners.

Sandia, conversely, excels at stopping the run. But it is important to note that Joy throws for an average of 221 yards a game.

“We’ve got to play defense the way we’ve played it the first 12 games,” Barker said. “Play hard, play fast, 11 helmets to the ball.”

And, Barker hopes, the love will be flowing from the stands tonight. Sandia alumni have been feeding Barker with a steady stream of good-luck notes this week. The school sits in one of Albuquerque’s oldest neighborhoods.

“I agree with Tyler (that the pressure is on us),” Barker said.

NOTE: The last nighttime 5A final was 2007 (Mayfield-Clovis). The 2009 matchup at Wilson between La Cueva and Mayfield was originally scheduled for a Friday night, but a snowstorm that Friday pushed it back to the next afternoon.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal