RIO RANCHO — While the first iteration of Rio Rancho-La Cueva was a bit of a snoozer, the rematch was an absolute thrill ride.
The second-seeded Rams (9-1) overcame a game-ending injury to its top offensive player, and rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat the third-seeded Bears in double overtime, 35-34, at Rio Rancho Stadium on Friday night.
Rio Rancho will play rival Cleveland next Saturday in the state final.
“When I was younger, I got to play in the All-American baseball games in Florida in front of some pretty big crowds, but nothing like this,” said Rio Rancho quarterback Dominick Priddy. “Nothing that’s gone back and forth this much. We were literally crushing the ground down 21-7. Everyone lost hope in us. We just came out at halftime with heart, and we never gave up.”
The Bears (10-2) had ran off nine straight victories since the 50-0 shellacking administered by the Rams in late August.
After forcing a three-and-out on Rio Rancho’s first possession, the Bears’ Gabriel Buie scored on a 72-yard burst on his team’s first offensive play.
That TD was followed up with two more as La Cueva was firmly in command at halftime.
Too, Rio Rancho star running back, UNM commit Zach Vigil, went down with a rib injury early in the second quarter, and didn’t return.
If Rio Rancho intended on changing the momentum, it would need to do so quickly, and do so with other players ascending into key roles.
“We talked about it at halftime: Look we were up 20-0 over Cleveland, and we lost,” said Rio Rancho head coach Gerry Pannoni. “We’re down 21-7, we can do this, you’ve got to believe.”
The momentum started to shift on Rio Rancho’s first drive of the second half. After stopping a deep La Cueva drive at its own 20, the Rams marched 80 yards to cut the 14-point deficit in half.
A pair of pass interference penalties extended the possession, and Devin Rice finished off the drive with a 12-yard scoring run.
Rio Rancho then executed a perfect onside kick to retain possession. The game-tying drive took 10 plays with Priddy tying the contest after a 7-yard TD scamper.
La Cueva missed a go-ahead 27-yard field on its first possession of the fourth quarter, and Rio Rancho’s go-ahead TD drive stalled at the one-yard line when Priddy’s fourth-down pass was knocked away.
Rio Rancho had one more opportunity to win in regulation, but a 40-yard field goal attempt went wide left to force extra minutes.
The drama continued in overtime.
La Cueva scored easily on its first OT possession when QB Aidan Armenta hooked up with Ian Sanchez on a 10-yard TD toss.
Rio Rancho responded even quicker as Priddy overcame a bad snap over his head, scrambled to his left, and found Javas Maria on the 10-yard TD toss.
The Rams possessed the ball first to start the second overtime, and scored in just two plays. Priddy found Traiven Williams II from seven yards out. The successful point-after put the Rams in front 35-28.
La Cueva wasted no time scoring in two plays as Brandon Cabaniss punched the ball in from 1 yard out. The Bears, though, eschewed a tying point-after kick, and went for the two-point conversion and the victory. On the try, Armenta was pressured quickly by the Rams defense, and his pass fell incomplete to end the game.
It was not immediately known the extent of Vigil’s injury, or his availability for next week.
No. 2 RIO RANCHO 35 , No. 3 LA CUEVA 34 (2 OT)
La Cueva 14 | 7 | 0 | 0 | 7 | 6 — 34
Rio Rancho 0 | 7 | 14 | 0 | 7 | 7 —- 35