Highland football has taken care of its own - Albuquerque Journal

Highland football has taken care of its own

Highland coach Phillip Lovato, here watching the Hornets play Los Lunas on Oct. 1, made the decision — backed by the HHS administration — to walk away from games that would clearly have been mismatches. The decision, controversial in some quarters, was made because of the Hornets’ lack of depth and experience. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Highland High School is in the midst of the most tumultuous and possibly transitional football season in the program’s illustrious history.

Through decades of success, including five state championships, Highland has never had times quite like this.

At a team meeting two months ago, roughly a week ahead of the scheduled regular-season opener against Eldorado, the school made what is perhaps an unprecedented decision to basically opt out of all the games on its schedule against larger teams, four of them in all.

Why? Highland, with just 20 players on the roster at the start of the season, most of them freshmen, had a dire shortage of athletes, particularly those with football experience. And, the Hornets’ coach said, it would have been far too risky to their physical well-being.

“At the end of the day,” Highland coach Philip Lovato said, “what we’re trying to fight for is the safety of our kids.”

With the season now in its second half, picking and choosing which teams to play was, Hornet players say in hindsight, the correct path.

“We definitely thought it was the right thing to do,” senior center/defensive lineman Diego Torres said. He is one of only four seniors in the program.

“We met with the younger guys and got their input, and they wanted to do this so their future could be a little bit better.”

Highland retained all its games against schools at its level, Class 5A in football, which is the second-largest in the state as dictated by student enrollments. With the help of the district office at Albuquerque Public Schools, Highland even found two replacement games against smaller programs West Las Vegas and Pojoaque Valley.

The Hornets did not play scheduled contests against 6A schools Eldorado, Albuquerque High, Organ Mountain or Cibola.

By the numbers

There are three APS high schools that play at the 5A level in football. Valley and Del Norte are the other two. Both have smaller student enrollments than Highland.

APS Chief Operating Officer Gabriella Blakey said late last month that Highland had approximately 1,230 students this school year. Del Norte has about 1,100 students, and approximately 35 football players in grades 9-12. Valley has 1,065 students, and about 35 football players.

At the other end of the spectrum in APS is Volcano Vista, with about 2,300 students and nearly 130 players in its program. Atrisco Heritage has a similar enrollment.

Reduction in athlete participation, especially as the pandemic endures, is an issue not just with Highland football but with many other programs as well. In fact, the pandemic has negatively impacted numerous boys and girls programs in all sports in APS and across the state.

Albuquerque High and Rio Grande several years ago both went independent in football, where they played an entirely non-district schedule. In the case of AHS, it was related both to a lack of players and a schedule the Bulldogs felt was too harsh.

“We couldn’t handle that type of schedule at that time,” Bulldogs coach Tim Johnson said.

AHS subsequently rejoined District 2-6A this fall, but Rio Grande remains independent. The Ravens have been fielding about 30 football players this fall, coach Dennis Minidis said, adding that most of them are underclassmen.

Highland’s specific issue from the start was being scheduled to play against teams far exceeding its weight class. The possibility of young athletes being injured is what drove Lovato, his team – and, crucially, Highland’s administration – to bow out of games it knew would be competitive mismatches. If one removes the four seniors from Highland’s roster, the average experience for a Hornet football player is a scant 0.3 years, Lovato said. Even with those four, it’s under 2 years.

There was, Lovato said, nothing to gain from playing those games, for either school.

Just Friday night, Highland had two players taken off the Milne Stadium turf by ambulance during an 18-16 loss against Valley. One was a freshman, the other a first-year junior. Both had been released as of early Saturday morning, Lovato said.

Blakey said in an interview that she is sensitive to the scheduling topic after having conversations with Lovato and Highland principal Marco Harris. But Lovato knew he was taking on the existing APS system as it pertained to scheduling.

Lovato said, “I believed I was gonna be fired. But Marco had my back. If it wasn’t for him, I would 100 percent say I would not have a job.”

Highland is 1-6 overall, although the Hornets have only played five games. Their record includes forfeits to Albuquerque High and Cibola. Highland will finish the fall season with eight regular-season games instead of 10. Highland replaced Organ Mountain with Pojoaque Valley. That game is a no-contest for the Knights at the moment, but the New Mexico Activities Association has not yet looked into Organ Mountain’s situation and it is possible it could become a forfeit victory.

For Highland, the news is not entirely bleak.

After the season began, about two dozen new players joined the Highland football program, and the Hornets had a far more manageable 45 athletes as of late September.

“In my mind,” said Harris, “I think we’re in a fantastic space to grab ahold of this opportunity. I think coach Lovato and his team are committed and have done an amazing job in creating invested, engaged youth – not just on the field, but (within the Highland) community.”

Blakey, a Highland graduate who returned to the campus as a teacher and activities director before joining the district administration, helped facilitate the two replacement games on the schedule.

West Las Vegas, a 3A program that replaced Eldorado, beat Highland handily in Week 1. But Highland beat Pojoaque Valley, a 4A school, on Sept. 9.

A rocky road

This odd journey for Highland this season did, to a degree, ruffle some feathers.

Eldorado coach Charlie Dotson was not pleased with how things were handled leading up to Highland canceling the game with his team, for example.

“(They) should have figured this out a while ago,” Dotson said at the time when the cancellation became official. “I’m not blaming anybody, but it’s adults that aren’t making good decisions for kids.”

Organ Mountain, Cibola and Albuquerque High will each finish the season with just nine regular-season games, one fewer than the maximum. Eldorado was able to secure a last-minute replacement game with West Mesa for its opener.

“I think it was poor scheduling from the get-go,” Organ Mountain coach Steve Castille said. “You know that Highland has been down, why they would put those guys to open the season against Eldorado in the first place didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

Lovato further acknowledged that Highland’s unorthodox path has even rankled some Highland alumni. He said many former Hornets may be unaware of how the dynamics of the program have changed since their time at Highland. But Lovato said he gladly will absorb the brunt of any criticism because he wants what is best for his current Highland roster.

“I know some weren’t happy with our decision,” he said. “They didn’t want these opportunities taken away from the kids.”

But Lovato said there is a huge divide between the haves in APS football and the have-nots. Schools like Highland, Valley, Rio Grande, West Mesa and Albuquerque High between 2004 and 2019 lost approximately 90% of their games to the other APS high school teams, Lovato said.

“A lot of coaches are not happy with me … I took away an easy win,” Lovato said.

Highland made the playoffs as recently as 2019.

Trending upward?

Despite the many travails, Highland feels the program is healthier than it’s been in months and that there is cause for genuine optimism, despite some recent injuries in losses to Los Lunas and Valley.

Even though half of Highland’s current 45 players are ninth-graders, the steady stream of newcomers allowed the school to schedule a JV game recently.

Blakey said APS wants to also look at how it can improve middle-school athletics at Highland’s feeder schools to find a way to help athletes get involved in sports at a younger age and to stay in Highland’s district. And she said APS is looking at giving Highland more power to schedule its own football games.

“Our kids at Highland are really good athletes. They have a lot of talent, but it’s coming out later in life to them,” Blakey said.

Lovato said it is important that Highland makes it clear that it isn’t seeking anyone’s pity.

“We’re not victims,” he said firmly. “We’re standing up for ourselves.”

Harris echoed that sentiment.

“I think what I’d want to tell people is, it’s about maintaining the safety and instructional educational opportunities that scholastic sports are supposed to provide,” he said. “It’s hard to provide any of those from a 50-0 shellacking.

“We still believe in excellence. But at times, you have to rip it all the way down.”


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