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Area football teams plan for a shorter season

From left, Lucas Montoya, Lucas Coriz, Isaac Ruiz and Devin Flores run up the stadium steps at St. Michael’s High School last July in preparation for a football season that was eventually postponed. Now, players are preparing for what will be an abbreviated season to start next month. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

It seems that COVID-19 and the New Mexico Activities Association have accomplished what St. Michael’s local gridiron opponents could not.

It has been more than a decade since the Horsemen have not at least shared the mythical Santa Fe championship in head-to-head competition with fierce rivals Capital and Santa Fe High.

But not in the spring of 2021, in this, the weirdest of all seasons.

Instead, the three high schools will go their own way, playing opponents deemed suitable by the NMAA in a vastly abbreviated but much anticipated slate.

As a matter of fact, the Santa Fe Public high schools won’t even be on the schedule for the opening weekend as both started the approved hybrid learning model too late. At the moment, the Demons and the Jaguars each have three games scheduled, with the final game of the season on the first weekend of April expected to be announced soon.

St. Mike’s, meanwhile, opens at Raton on Saturday, meaning the Horsemen will meet the Tigers for a third consecutive time, albeit with a nearly 16-month gap between the latter two games.

The Horsemen also will play Socorro, Taos and Espanola Valley on successive Saturdays before their final mystery game.

At this time, the governor’s health order prohibits fans from attending any games.

Capital High School’s assistant coach Zeke Villegas, center, checks the temperature of quarterback Manuel Vargas and other members of their football team after a practice in June before high school fall sports were postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Capital, which is loaded with seniors and should be a tough game for all opponents, opens with Los Alamos and follows up with Española Valley before seeing Santa Fe.

Despite the obstacles and abbreviated season, just getting the chance to hit the field again is welcome, said Santa Fe High coach Andrew Martinez, especially with the opportunity to see some new faces on the schedule.

“We’ve got some light ahead of us,” he said. “I like (our schedule) a lot. Rio Rancho, they’re a perennial power. It will be a tough game. A game where we’re going to be challenged. The kids were excited about it when I told them (Wednesday) after practice. As coaches, we want to compete and coach against the best, and so do the players.”

That’s followed by Los Alamos and the Jaguars in what should be a classic encounter. The two SFPS high schools played for the District 2-5A championship in 2019 in a game Capital won 28-0.

“It’s all important,” Martinez said of that game. “But they’re all important. We’re not going to take Capital and make that game more important than the games against Rio Rancho and Los Alamos.”

Still, it’s a game that will have significant meaning to both sides.

“Obviously, it is important because it means a lot for the players since they know each other so well. They’ll be very excited to play that game against each other.”

Missing out on the annual St. Michael’s contest will, however, be a little disappointing, Martinez said.

“It’s the second-oldest football rivalry in the state and it’s a big community game,” he said. “The kids look forward to it. They grew up together, they’re friends. They work out together. But … we’re just happy to have an opportunity to play. At the end of the day, we’ll take whatever we can get.”

In some ways, this short spring season will help prepare squads for the coming fall when, hopefully, prep sports returns to normal.

“It’s natural to take this spring season and look at it as some extra practice for upcoming fall season,” Martinez said. “But our first goal is to get these seniors some opportunities to play. To get some film and get some of them looked at that want a chance to play some college ball. Now, they’ll have a body of work for their senior season.”

The players are also sporting a whole new attitude, he said.

“Not that they weren’t before, but they’re so much more appreciative and coachable just because of everything they’ve been through,” Martinez said. “They’ve become so close. It’s a joy to go out to practice. It’s just fun. It’s good to see how happy they are to be out there. I’m so proud of them because they’ve endured so much.”