There are a few loose ends that must be properly tied in the aftermath of a feverishly entertaining penultimate weekend of the high school football season.
Among those ends are the following: awarding man cards to the entire Rio Rancho roster; the impending homecoming — or is it roadcoming? — of Jeremy Maupin; the continued excellence of the Eunice Cardinals; and a last-day pairing of longtime northern New Mexico rivals.
We begin with the Class 6A state championship game, Saturday afternoon at Cleveland between the top-seeded Storm and second-seeded Rio Rancho. This is one of three finals Saturday that pair district rivals, along with Ruidoso-Lovington and St. Michael’s-Robertson.
It is their second consecutive championship game. Cleveland had a memorable 48-40 win on Rio Rancho’s field 104 weeks ago.
These two have been on this collision course since the summer, and both have been trending for a decade. In the 10 big-school championship games since 2011, seven have featured Rio Rancho or Cleveland. The Rams have been in four finals, and this is No. 5 for the Storm.
Among the impressive and notable achievements on Friday and Saturday, perhaps none left mouths agape quite like Rio Rancho overcoming a 14-point deficit in the second half — plus the loss of injured tailback Zach Vigil, possibly the state’s best player, for most of the game — to overcome La Cueva 35-34 in two overtimes on Friday night.
The injury Vigil suffered Friday that forced him out of the La Cueva game (believed to be ribs) is going to be a persistent narrative this week. I messaged Vigil on Saturday morning. He was very polite as he said he wasn’t talking about this with anyone. Mystery probably serves the Rams well here. But whatever happens Saturday, their victory against the Bears was phenomenal.
* The lower seeds raised their voices high last weekend, winning five of the nine playoff games.
Two undefeated No. 1 seeds, Raton (3A) and Farmington (5A) were sent packing in the semifinal round, and a third No. 1, Jal, fell in the 2A championship game.
Farmington’s unceremonious bouncing was a 57-14 loss at Bulldog Bowl to Artesia. Which creates a fantastic storyline Saturday, as Jeremy Maupin’s return to Artesia now also comes with a late-fall return to Los Lunas.
It was almost exactly seven months ago that Maupin resigned at Los Lunas to return to his hometown of Artesia to coach the Bulldogs. Perhaps with a tinge of serendipity, Maupin and the Bulldogs, who picked off four passes in that walloping of Farmington, will visit the Tigers in the 5A final.
“I’m excited,” Maupin said Saturday. “It’ll be fun to see everybody again.”
He added: “I’m sure (Los Lunas) will use it as, oh, coach Maupin left us and we’re playing them, so it’s motivation.”
Maupin took Los Lunas to the 5A title game in 2018 and 2019, falling a game short of the blue trophy in each season to Roswell.
When Greg Henington took over from Maupin in Los Lunas, he was quick to talk about wanting Los Lunas to climb that last step. And he repeated that mantra Saturday after Los Lunas rallied past Goddard 26-21 in the semifinals. (As a side note, Rockets coach Chris White once played for Henington’s father, Rex, at Hobbs.)
“We told the kids, our goal is to get the blue, not get to the blue,” he said. “We have to finish this, and it’s going to be extremely tough.”
To that end, Henington said it would be “almost impossible” to dodge the buzz surrounding Saturday. Indeed, there is just so much going on in this game. Not just Maupin’s return, but Los Lunas’ quest for an undefeated season — and, more importantly, the school’s first football championship — plus Artesia’s bid for a record-extending 31st title.
And if all that weren’t enough, Los Lunas is almost certain, as we first reported a couple of months ago, to be leaving 5A for 6A starting next year. So this could be the school’s last, best chance at a football championship.
“It’s gonna be tough,” Tigers quarterback Paul Cieremans said. “Maupin is very smart, so it’s gonna be a dogfight.”
As a P.S. on Farmington’s exit, I went back 15 years, and couldn’t locate any No. 1 seed that was beaten by as many points (43) as Farmington was on Saturday. It was the worst playoff loss by a No. 1 seed in an 11-Man division since Lovington was beaten 48-10 by Portales in the 3A state final in 2008.
* The 2A season ended Saturday in Jal, as Eunice won its fourth straight championship, 28-15 over the rival Panthers. The Cardinals avenged a difficult 40-38 loss to Jal in early October.
“It was extremely validating,” Eunice coach Greg Jackson said. “It proves the tenets the program are built on still have a lot of merit.”
It was the final game in the career of Jal’s Roger Carreon, who next month is expected to sign his national letter of intent with Boise State.
“#77 signing out … it’s been one hell of a ride and I’m honored to call Jal my home,” Carreon said on his Twitter account Sunday.
* Only one team that played in the first round remains alive. That would be Ruidoso, the 6 seed in 3A. The Warriors have already beaten Aztec at home, plus St. Pius and Bloomfield on the road, heading into the final Saturday at Lovington.
“We’re just hanging our hat on being the road warriors,” Ruidoso coach Kief Johnson said. The last 6 seed to advance to a state final was Estancia in 2014.
* The 3A championship game in Las Vegas between Robertson and St. Mike’s presents an interesting scenario, insomuch as the Cardinals battered the Horsemen 44-7 in the regular season — but 10 St. Michael’s players were in COVID quarantine that week. Both teams knocked off higher-seeded teams in the semifinals to set up this much-anticipated District 2-3A rematch.
That game — the entire weekend, really — should be chock full of fireworks. Can’t wait.
State Title Games
Saturday at 1 p.m.
Class 6A: (2) Rio Rancho at (1) Cleveland
Class 5A: (4) Artesia at (2) Los Lunas
Class 4A: (6) Ruidoso at (1) Lovington
Class 3A: (4) St. Michael’s at (3) Robertson