La Cueva and Las Cruces stand between another state final involving Cleveland and Rio Rancho, and the Bears and Bulldawgs figure to have plenty to say about this.
The Storm and Rams, the state’s top two-ranked teams for virtually the entire season, come into Friday night’s Class 6A state semifinals as prohibitive favorites to advance to their second championship game meeting in three seasons.
No. 1 Cleveland (11-0) is at No. 5 Las Cruces (8-4), and No. 3 La Cueva (10-1) visits No. 2 Rio Rancho (8-1) in Friday’s 7 p.m. semifinals.
LA CUEVA-RIO RANCHO: One of the joyous mysteries of this weekend is waiting to learn how the Bears will perform at full strength against the Rams. La Cueva was decimated by injuries in the first meeting, a 50-0 loss to Rio Rancho on Aug. 27.
“It’s gonna be a much closer game,” Rio Rancho coach Gerry Pannoni said.
No fewer than five receivers, including the fantastic Exodus Ayers, either missed all or a significant part of the first Rio Rancho game back in August. That was far from La Cueva’s only issue, but it was the most prominent one on an evening when the Rams were clearly superior in every way.
“We’ve watched that film a lot,” La Cueva coach Brandon Back said. “We got outcoached and outplayed. No running away from that excuse. We felt like we took ownership of that loss.”
This matchup features two of New Mexico’s most elite offensive talents: Ayers, who caught four touchdown passes in a quarterfinal win over Volcano Vista, and Rio Rancho running back Zach Vigil, largely regarded as the state’s best at his position. Vigil, who scored five TDs against Cibola last week, recently committed to UNM.
“Ridiculously strong running back,” Back said. “He’s built different, he runs different, and he’s a very smooth running back. Gonna be a tall order for our defense.”
Pannoni said the Rams must keep the explosive Ayers underneath coverage on Friday. He has 15 TD receptions and averages over 20 yards a catch.
“We can take a dink and dunk. We can’t take a big play,” he said. “I think we’ve done that all year defensively.”
La Cueva also must run the ball better than it did 2½ months ago, when it gained only 59 yards. Junior Gabriel Buie rushed for 200 yards last week against Volcano Vista.
Meanwhile, the Bears – in particular their defense – hope to change the narrative after Rio Rancho shredded them in the first meeting.
“We know we got our butt kicked that night,” said La Cueva quarterback Aidan Armenta, who has thrown for 26 touchdowns and more than 2,500 yards. He overcame a three-interception first half against Volcano Vista to lead the Bears in the second half.
“Now they better be ready, because we’re coming and we’re not gonna blink at all.”
CLEVELAND-LAS CRUCES: The top-seeded Storm (11-0) makes its second trip to the Field of Dreams this season. Cleveland beat Las Cruces 42-7 in Rio Rancho on Sept. 10, although the running back who had four touchdowns that night, Josh Perry, has missed most of the season with an injury.
“The fight is against complacency,” Storm coach Heath Ridenour said. “You assume that whatever happened last time will happen again, and that is completely false. We view them as a completely different team.”
Junior quarterback Evan Wysong and running back Lucious Dickson have gone off in the Storm’s two most recent wins. Dickson ran wild against Rio Rancho in the second half to close the regular season, and Wysong gained 151 rush yards against Hobbs in a 42-14 first-round playoff victory last week.
“If the ball is in his hands,” Las Cruces coach Mark Lopez said of Wysong, “sometimes it doesn’t matter. He creates a lot out of nothing.”
Wysong has thrown for 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns, and he’s run for another 820 yards and 12 scores.
The Las Cruces defense, Lopez said, must ramp things up on Friday.
“We weren’t sound at all,” he said of the first fall meeting.
The Las Cruces offense is propelled by senior QB Dallas Boyd, who has approximately 2,500 all-purpose yards. The Bulldawgs’ other top weapons include running back Eli Ogas and sophomore receiver Zayke Hopkins.