The sequel has arrived.
Cleveland-Rio Rancho, Part II, will play out Saturday afternoon at Cleveland as the No. 1-seeded Storm and the second-seeded Rams determine Class 6A’s state football champion.
Those who witnessed Part I can only hope the rematch is half as enthralling as Cleveland’s 28-27, come-from-behind regular-season win over Rio Rancho four weeks ago. The Rams led 20-0 at halftime on Oct. 29, but even after watching Cleveland roar back to take its first lead with under 90 seconds to go, still had a chance to win. Rio Rancho missed a 24-yard field goal with under a second remaining.
“This is what they wanted,” Rams coach Gerry Pannoni said of his team. “They wanted it, they got it, here it is.”
Kickoff is 1 p.m.
Rio Rancho (9-1) and Cleveland (12-0) are meeting in the second straight 6A title game. They met as a third seed (Cleveland) and a fourth seed (Rio Rancho) two years ago, and there weren’t any playoffs during the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spring season.
“It’s a new team, new week, you prepare for them like every other team,” Cleveland sophomore linebacker Stratton Shufelt said. “Beating the same team twice is hard, but we’re not thinking about the last game.”
Even as the Rams are eager to pen their own ending this time, the Storm realize that it is better served not overloading on the emotions of the day. Or the opponent.
“Don’t worry about the past,” said Cleveland junior quarterback Evan Wysong, the Storm’s most potent offensive weapon. “You have to stay where your feet are.”
Speaking of feet, the two belonging to Rio Rancho senior running back Zach Vigil have been an ongoing topic for the last seven days. The University of New Mexico commit suffered an apparent rib injury in the Rams’ 35-34 double-overtime semifinal win last week over La Cueva, and missed most of the game.
Pannoni smiled mischieviously when asked point blank if Vigil would play Saturday.
“We’ll find out,” he said.
Cleveland has been preparing as if Vigil will play.
“Hundred percent,” Storm coach Heath Ridenour said. “He’s gonna play in that game.”
If Vigil is a scratch, or if he plays and is hindered physically, Rio Rancho likely will turn to speedy senior Devin Rice, who would be the primary ball carrier on many teams and who has been quietly productive this season.
Rewinding a month, the first half of the first game was odd, insomuch as Cleveland ran 17 plays in Rio Rancho’s red zone without a point as it didn’t finish three drives that reached as deep as the Rio Rancho 16, 10 and 4. By contrast, the Rams ran only three plays in Cleveland’s red zone and scored 20 points. That was due in large part to a couple of long runs by Vigil.
The Rams, quarterback Dominick Priddy said, were “timid” as they went scoreless over the final 20 game minutes after taking a 27-7 lead, and Vigil gained only 26 yards in the fourth quarter.
“Everyone is super focused,” Priddy said. “We all pretty much feel that we beat Cleveland, but lost the game.”
Said Rams linebacker Chris Montoya: “We all felt horrible after losing that game.”
Ridenour praised Cleveland’s front seven, including a terrific linebacking corps featuring the Shufelt and three-year starter Dominic Vasquez – Cleveland’s two leading tacklers – for raising their level in the second half as the Storm put Rio Rancho in an unfamiliar position of having to perform in a close game.
“You learn more in bad times than you do in good,” Pannoni said.
What to expect Saturday is anyone’s guess.
“It’s like flipping a coin,” Ridenour said. “It’s just as difficult for them to beat us as it is for us to beat them.”