Los Lunas, Lovington, Robertson and Cleveland will host state championship games at 1 p.m. Saturday as the curtain is lowered on 2021 fall high school football season.
Today, the Journal is previewing the Class 4A final. Class 5A and 6A previews are coming Saturday.
NO. 6 RUIDOSO (8-5) at NO. 1 LOVINGTON (9-3): The Wildcats routed the Warriors 46-14 in a district game on Oct. 22, but both head coaches, Lovington’s Anthony Gonzales and Ruidoso’s Kief Johnson, agree that the Warriors, especially on offense, look much different than they did five weeks ago.
“After they played us,” Gonzales said, “they flipped the script a little bit. They’ve got two very talented quarterbacks, a good tailback and a really good tight end.”
One of those QBs, senior Griffin Hooker, and senior tailback Bracxton Hall have combined for over 2,300 rushing yards and 25 rush touchdowns for Ruidoso.
Lovington is coming off a decisive semifinal victory over another team, Moriarty, that excelled at running the football.
“We have to challenge their physicality on the defensive side of the ball,” Gonzales said of Ruidoso.
The Wildcats have given up a mere 56 points during this current six-game winning streak.
The Warriors hope to pressure Wildcat junior QB Ashton Aranda and do a better job than they did last month of guarding Lovington senior receivers Adam Aguilera (60 receptions/923 yards/8 TDs), Tayten Hilliard (31/523/8) and especially Isaac Hinson (45/727/15). Hinson destroyed Ruidoso in the first meeting, catching four of his 15 scoring passes in that victory last month. Freshman Ondalis Cardeñas powers the Lovington ground game, and rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns for Lovington on Oct. 22.
Ruidoso has its own special momentum, with three straight wins in the playoffs, the last two coming on the road against No. 3 St. Pius and No. 2 Bloomfield.
The Warriors, Johnson said, are equal to the challenge.
“You know,” Johnson said, “I think momentum probably picked up after we played Lovington. We battled with a little intersquad squabbling, until that last play of the game and that young man scored the touchdown and our team went out and celebrated with them.”
The play to which Johnson refers was a TD by Iziah Martinez, a senior student/football player at Lovington with Down syndrome. In an agreement between the coaches, Martinez scored his first-ever touchdown at the end of game. And both teams poured onto the field to congratulate him.
“That brought us closer together,” Johnson said. “It united us together and we needed that. Our guys just really came together.”
And even as a 6 seed, Johnson said Ruidoso has improved plenty enough to upset Lovington.
“Once you’re in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “The kids are playing with confidence, and this is a salty, deadly team. We’re ready for this game, and we’re excited to get another shot at them.”
Johnson is trying to lead Ruidoso to a third blue trophy, after wins in 2014 and 2017. Lovington last won state in 2011.