6A football final has many Lobos' attention - Albuquerque Journal

6A football final has many Lobos’ attention

Isaiah Chavez, quarterback at UNM for the last two seasons, is shown (6) in action during the Nov. 30, 2019 large-school state championship game for Rio Rancho vs. rival Cleveland. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Lobos, and brothers, on Friday morning.

Hatfields and McCoys on Saturday afternoon.

“This is a legal gang membership,” said a smiling Larry Allen III, who played for the Rio Rancho Rams.

On Saturday, the Rams and Cleveland Storm will meet for the Class 6A state championship.

Among those with a vested interest in the outcome are former Rams and Storm players who now wear the cherry and silver of the University of New Mexico.

The Lobos will finish their regular season Friday with an 11 a.m. kickoff against Utah State. At 1 p.m. Saturday, it’s Rio Rancho (9-1) and Cleveland (12-0).

The Journal was at UNM on Tuesday morning to visit with graduates of both schools.

“You can’t (explain it),” said Isaiah Chavez, who quarterbacked Rio Rancho into the state final two years ago where the Rams lost 48-40 to Cleveland. “There’s not any word for it, except unbelievable.”

It has been a contentious rivalry as far as the football is concerned.

Although Rio Rancho was the first school to open, Cleveland was the first to win a state football championship, in 2011. Shockingly, that was just the Storm’s third varsity season. The Rams didn’t win their first until 2014.

Cleveland has three football titles, the others coming in 2015 and 2019. Rio Rancho also won state in 2016.

“I’m gonna say one-sided,” said UNM linebacker Dion Hunter, who was a standout defender for Cleveland and who graduated in 2019. “We just go get the ring, you know what I’m saying?”

Dion Hunter (Courtesy of UNM)

Rio Rancho has been calling Cleveland by the moniker “Rio Rancho North” for years. But Cleveland, at least lately, has had the better of things – unbeaten against the Rams over the last five years.

“I don’t care how many championships they have, or how many times they beat us,” Chavez said. “(They’re) Rio Rancho Junior, that’s all it is.”

Saturday’s game is at Cleveland, at 1 p.m.

“The rivalry, one word (to describe it) is ‘violent,’ ” said Josh Howes, a UNM walkon. He is the son of former Rio Rancho High head coach David Howes, who now coaches Lobo safeties. “We were here first, but that’s all right. It’s all love at the end of the day.”

The two schools are separated only by a handful of miles. They met in the regular season on Oct. 29, a game the Rams led 20-0 in the first half but lost 28-27 in one of the best chapters of this 12-year-old rivalry.

“It’s about competition, about representing your section of the community,” David Howes said. He resigned after the 2019 high school season to join UNM’s coaching staff. “It’s evolved into a true, healthy, competitive rivalry.”

Cleveland and Rio Rancho are the top two seeds in this year’s 6A playoffs.

The charismatic Allen is the most outspoken of all the former Rams and Storm players.

“Pure hatred. Those are the best words I can give you,” he said as he defined the relationship. “Preparing for a Cleveland game, as a former Rio Rancho player, that was probably the most intense week of practice I’ve ever had in my life.

“The thing about it is, it’s the biggest rivalry in the Southwest, and there’s so much hype built around the game that it definitely gets into the kids’ heads, and when it does that, it’s a blast.”

Still, the relationship between players is mostly cordial outside the bubble of the football season.

“We know these guys. They’re right across the road,” Hunter said. “Everyone is so close and connected and knows each other. We can be friendly after the season’s over.”

Lobo freshman Luke Wysong from Cleveland has more at stake than most on Saturday, since his younger brother Evan quarterbacks the Storm.

“That kid’s a stud,” Luke said, adding, “I see a lot of myself in him, just the way football is being played, staying calm and trusting the process.”

Most of the players the Journal spoke to said they’d be at Cleveland on Saturday.

“We might have a team meeting at 1 o’clock on Saturday,” UNM coach Danny Gonzales said with a smile as he walked by. His team wraps up the season Friday.

Can Rio Rancho avenge that loss from a month ago?

“Rio Rancho has a bunch of dawgs on that team,” Allen said emphatically. “For as long as it takes, from here until eternity, we’re gonna keep eating them until we’re up on score.”

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