The final furlong has arrived.
Next Saturday, the 11-Man football playoff brackets get their unveiling, but before then, there are a slew of vital games on tap around the state for Week 11, the final week of the fall regular season.
Just in the metro area, seven schools – Cleveland, Rio Rancho, Los Lunas, Belen, Moriarty, St. Pius and Albuquerque Academy – will be playing for a district championship. Six of those seven are going head to head.
There is time yet to take a deeper dive into the Rio Rancho-Cleveland showdown (I’ll preview that No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash later in the week), but it is worth noting that the Storm hasn’t lost to the Rams since 2016. Cleveland won big in the spring, 42-0, its fifth straight victory over Rio Rancho in the series. This District 1-6A title game will be the first genuine high-stakes taste of this rivalry for second-season Rio Rancho coach Gerry Pannoni.
Following a 57-7 win over Volcano Vista, I asked him Friday night about Cleveland, and he said the Rams already had been eagerly doing homework. “Because we have been COVID-ed out twice, we’ve had a week prep already for Cleveland a few weeks ago,” he said.
Kickoff Friday is 6 p.m. at Rio Rancho.
Academy and St. Pius meet Thursday night at Nusenda Community Stadium in what will be one of the most meaningful football games these two private schools have ever had against each another.
The Chargers haven’t won a district football title since 2010, which was the last year they appeared in a state final. And St. Pius and Academy haven’t met in this sport since 2014, so there’s no recent bad blood.
“It’s always great to have that rival team, regardless of (not) having played them for a while,” Academy coach Shaun Gehres said. “It’s a special thing for both teams.”
Beyond the nature of the relationship between the two, the District 5/6-4A title is on the line for both the Sartans and Chargers.
And beyond even that angle, the winner seems almost certain to gain a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Academy could have one advantage: the Chargers were idle this week and will have had nearly two full weeks to prep for St. Pius.
The Sartans, meanwhile, were to play at Grants on Saturday night and have a super short week ahead of them.
Regardless, let us hope this meeting of top-five teams – a sentence I have never written about these two as it relates to football – sparks a new and heated, albeit sportsmanlike, chapter between the two.
Two of the unheralded success stories in prep football this fall in the metro area have been Belen and Moriarty.
Eagles coach Andrew McCraw wasn’t hired until the first week in July after Belen’s original choice to take over, Phil Lopez, pulled out of the job unexpectedly.
That left McCraw with little turnaround before opening day. He didn’t even have four weeks of offseason before the first official practice. That’s a blink of the eye for a new coach trying to implement new schemes and philosophies, not to mention the process of earning the trust of players who don’t know you.
“Part of the problem is, I’ve been at a place where … they know what to do, they know what the drills are,” he said. “At a new place, I have to teach them how to run the drills rather than the play.”
However, Belen has largely thrived and carries a 6-2 record into Los Lunas as the Eagles and undefeated Tigers collide at noon Saturday for the District 5/6-5A title. This is one of the truly great rivalry games in New Mexico.
McCraw was the run game coordinator and offensive line coach at Eastern New Mexico before Belen hired him away. But he’s also a former assistant coach at Valencia, so he has an appreciation of the scope that comes with Belen-Los Lunas week.
Did McCraw expect this kind of success?
“No,” he said, laughing. “I guess that is the easy answer. But when I got here, I was pleasantly surprised. … I knew we’d struggle a little bit, but it’s been a pleasant surprise.”
In Moriarty, the 5-2 Pintos, ranked fifth in Class 4A by the coaches right behind No. 3 Academy and No. 4 St. Pius, have overcome the loss of two games due to COVID issues within their own program.
Which might partly explain why Moriarty has garnered so little attention despite a solid body of work against a fairly good schedule. The Pintos are playing host to Taos on Friday night for the District 2-4A championship.
Both teams are on five-game winning streaks. Moriarty started the season with losses to Santa Fe and, in overtime, to Capital.
“Probably going to be the biggest challenge we’ve seen so far,” Pintos coach Gabe Romero said of Taos.
And Moriarty may be in the hunt for a top-four seed and a first-round postseason bye – but only if it can beat Taos. The Pintos’ seeding fate could be tied somewhat to the outcome of Academy-St. Pius.
THIS AND THAT: Santa Fe (6-4) closed its regular season Saturday, beating Albuquerque High (2-7) 41-38 at Ivan Head Stadium. … Menaul (5-3) closed its regular season with a 64-14 home loss to Magdalena for the District 1 title in 8-Man action Saturday. That knocked the Panthers out of the playoffs, as the Steers on Saturday night got the No. 5 seed in the six-team field. Tatum is seeded No. 1.