ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You might say the 2010 Manzano Monarchs have been royally charmed.
“Someone,” Manzano coach Aaron Ocampo admitted, “is smiling on us this year.”
On Saturday at Wilson Stadium, the Monarchs will play in a state championship football game for the first time since 1996. How did a team that was the third pick in its own district emerge as Albuquerque’s last chance in Class 5A?
It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been quite a joy ride.
The Monarchs have endured with one nail-biting win after another, and are a gaudy 5-1 in games decided by four points or fewer. They’ve advanced with a defense that is less than stellar. They’ve survived on offensive brilliance. This team went an entire month, at one of the most crucial junctures of the season, without a single turnover — and against the meat of the schedule. They’ve continually thrived in pressure-cooker environments.
Heck, last week, the difference between winning and losing came down to one bobbled pass — or completed pass, if you’re Las Cruces — in the back of the end zone on the last play of the game.
That, like so many things this year, worked out in Manzano’s favor.
The Monarchs have been living right, that’s for sure. About 85 percent of Manzano’s season has been about sheer excellence. The other 15 percent? A mixture of fortuitous bounces, missed extra points, brave calls, controversial officiating decisions and simple good fortune.
But where did it all start?
Maybe it began that night in Week 2, when Manzano eked out a 20-19 overtime win over Volcano Vista in a game won on a fourth-down pass. Was there magic that night? The Hawks missed two PATs, let’s put it that way.
Perhaps it was withstanding a late Artesia comeback attempt to beat the Bulldogs 42-38 in Week 3. Artesia was at Manzano’s 19 on the last play, which ended on an incomplete pass.
For me, it begins on a Friday night in Rio Rancho on Oct. 1, when the Monarchs, then ranked No. 6, played at fifth-ranked Cleveland.
To be more precise, it begins at the end of that game, with Manzano nursing a 28-24 lead and the Storm driving down the field, deep into Monarchs’ territory in the final minute.
Cleveland was on the verge of scoring the go-ahead touchdown and breaking Manzano’s heart. Just then, Manzano’s defense forced a fumble inside the 5-yard line, and the Monarchs recovered. Game over.
That win at Cleveland completely redirected the Manzano season.
Yes, there had been close calls before then, but that was an important result for the Monarchs. There hadn’t been a quality win over a 5A program until that night.
Next, Manzano scored 66 points in Clovis, and then there were those three impressive wins in District 2-5A, including routs of Eldorado and Sandia and that memorable 56-55 defensive stalemate with La Cueva — a game that was decided on MHS’ gutsy 2-point conversion in the final 30 seconds.
Manzano easily could have been bounced in either of the first two rounds in the playoffs.
The Monarchs were inconsistent against Carlsbad. Their mistakes kept the Cavemen close, and it was a 32-29 game late before an insurance TD by the Monarchs led to a 10-point victory. They survived and advanced.
To anyone who has watched Manzano, last week’s incomplete pass on a Hail Mary by Las Cruces on the final play of the game was hardly a surprise. That’s just the way it’s gone for Manzano. Except for that failed 2-pointer at the end against Cibola, these Monarchs have the Midas touch.
Which brings us to Saturday, and this final test against Mayfield. The Trojans have already taken out the No. 3 seed (Cleveland) and No. 2 seed (La Cueva). Now the Trojans face No. 1 Manzano.
It’s been 21 years since someone (Highland) other than La Cueva has brought a big-school football title to Albuquerque. Fate has shone on Manzano for three months.
Will it do so one last time?