RIO RANCHO – Cleveland was the fast starter this time.
And also a perfect finisher.
No. 1 Cleveland rode a dominating first quarter en route to the Class 6A state football championship Saturday afternoon, and bolstered by the splashy return of junior running back Josh Perry, who rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns, the Storm beat No. 2 Rio Rancho 35-14 before a crowd of nearly 7,000 at Cleveland.
For Cleveland, it is the program’s fourth state title. Three of them are undefeated seasons, this one following 2015 and 2011. The Storm also won state in 2019, the last time there were football playoffs in New Mexico.
“There’s no words to describe it,” Perry said. “No words.”
Cleveland (13-0) exploded by scoring the game’s first 21 points in the opening 9 1/2 minutes against the Rams (9-2).
“I got tired of people telling us we start slow,” Cleveland coach Heath Ridenour said. “We made the decision that we were gonna come out hard and leave no doubt that we’re the best team in the state.”
The Storm had to rally from 20 points down a month ago to beat Rio Rancho in the regular-season finale, but Cleveland on Saturday did what it failed (repeatedly) to do in the first half of the first meeting: reach the end zone.
“That was our statement throughout the week,” Perry said. “Finish drives.”
After Rio Rancho attempted a fake punt on the first series, which was an incomplete pass, Cleveland was gifted a short field for its first points. The drive was 17 yards in three plays.
And it was Perry who scored from 5 yards out for a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game. After a Rio Rancho punt, Perry added a 1-yard run with 7:09 left in the first quarter. His touchdown was set up by quarterback Evan Wysong’s 39-yard scamper on the first play.
“Ain’t no secret. We weren’t trying to throw the ball today,” Ridenour said. “We were trying to run the ball behind those five O linemen, who don’t get enough credit for what they do.”
Perry broke his collarbone early in an Oct. 1 district game against Atrisco Heritage.
“The target (to return) was this week, and I just did everything I could to be here,” Perry said. “‘… Me and Lucious (Dickson), we just ran behind that O-Line and drove it down their throats.”
After Cleveland’s Devonte Shendo intercepted Rams quarterback Dominick Priddy, Wysong capped a nine-play, 68-yard drive with 2:30 left in the first quarter on a 3-yard TD run, and the advantage for the Storm ballooned to 21-0.
“Our goal was to be physical with their defensive line and to move them, so our running backs could do what they do,” Storm senior right guard Charles Sanchez said.
Cleveland rushed for 160 yards in the first quarter, averaged eight yards a carry, and the Storm didn’t attempt a pass in the opening 12 minutes.
“They came at us, and we didn’t come at them,” Rio Rancho coach Gerry Pannoni said.
It certainly did not help the Rams’ cause that their outstanding senior tailback, Zach Vigil, was physically compromised. He was wearing gear under his jersey to protect his tender ribs (hurt last week in the semifinals against La Cueva), and he did start the game. However, Vigil clearly was not right. He rushed for just 3 yards in the decisive first quarter and finished with 31 yards on 13 carries.
“He wasn’t 100 percent, that’s for sure,” Pannoni said. “But he gutted it out. Probably a lesser kid may not have even played.”
Still, the Rams made things interesting for a little while.
Devin Rice’s 95-yard kickoff return for a score after Wysong’s TD got the Rams on the board. And Rice also caught a 10-yard scoring pass from Priddy with 4:51 to go before halftime to cut the deficit to seven at 21-14. That was also the halftime score.
In the third quarter, following a Storm defensive stop that included a 10-yard sack of Priddy, Wysong engineered Cleveland’s best drive of the game. Under the circumstances, it was also probably the Storm’s best drive of the season. It covered 88 yards in 12 plays, and culminated with Perry scoring from the 1, his third of the day, for a 28-14 lead with 2 minutes left in the third quarter.
Perry added a 58-yard TD run midway through the fourth quarter.
“Fire,” Sanchez said of Perry. Cleveland finished with 350 rushing yards, compared to 39 for the Rams.
Cleveland’s defense, in surrending just seven points, held Rio Rancho to 157 yards of offense.
“We performed outstanding from the last time we played them,” Storm senior middle linebacker Dominic Vasquez said. “This time, we knew it was different. It was state, and we were able to get things done. … This is an amazing day.”
Wysong added 91 yards on 18 carries.