LOS LUNAS – It can’t be missed. The minute anyone walks through the door and into the Los Lunas High School football fieldhouse, it’s there, covering up a large chunk of the facing wall, and autographed by the very teenagers responsible for its presence in this building.
That white banner recognizes the 2021 Class 5A state football champions.
The day it was handed to the Los Lunas Tigers, a shade over eight months ago, marked a high point – the high point – for the program, as a community starved for a football title received the gift they’d long sought.
And now that banner may as well represent another time and era.
Of the seven New Mexico state football champions last year, only one – Los Lunas – won’t have a chance to repeat in 2022, since the Tigers are upgraded into Class 6A starting this season. And with continuing population growth in their village, and parallel growth in the student body, the state’s largest classification may well prove to be their permanent home.
“Everyone is still hungry,” said senior middle linebacker Miguel Andrade. “Just because we won state last year doesn’t mean anything is owed to us this year. We have to take everything that we want.”
The Tigers were 13-0 last season, including a 40-28 state championship victory over visiting Artesia.
Los Lunas’ maiden voyage as a 6A program is Aug. 19 at Belen.
The Tigers will meet the other three schools that also are moving up from 5A to 6A – Alamogordo, Farmington and Capital – and also face La Cueva and Cibola in nondistrict games. Los Lunas’ season finale is a district matchup at home against Clovis and former Belen coach Andrew McCraw.
“We just take it (the change in classification) as a bigger challenge, and we have to rise to the occasion,” said junior receiver/defensive back Fabian Trujillo. “We’re moving towards the same goal.”
True, but their new apartment building is populated with bigger, meaner tenants.
“Well, the speed is obviously going to be a little different, the size, and those types of things,” said Los Lunas coach Greg Henington. “There are some great 5A teams, of course, that can play with anybody, but overall the competition is going to be much tougher.”
The Tigers’ first unofficial matchup is a scrimmage next Wednesday at Rio Rancho.
Los Lunas is expected to have well over 1,500 students for the 2022-23 school year. Any school over 1,450 is 6A-level in football. The New Mexico Activities Association’s formula for placing schools in a football classification is to combine the 40-day student count for 2021-22 plus the 80-day student counts from the two previous school years – for Los Lunas, 2019-20 and 2020-21. The enrollment is considered to be the average of those three numbers.
Realignment and classification of schools is calibrated by the NMAA every two years.
Los Lunas certainly will benefit from having its starting quarterback returning. Paul Cieremans was a dominant force as a junior, combining for about 2,900 passing and rushing yards. He was far more effective as a runner, with 1,544 yards and 120 rushing touchdowns, and excelled in last year’s playoffs, particularly the final two weeks.
“We won’t take any team lightly,” Cieremans said. “Whoever is in front of us, we’re gonna take it to them.”
Cieremans said the Tigers took the time to appropriately celebrate last season’s championship, but come February of this year, “we flipped the switch.”
Henington believes his group is ready for what’s ahead.
“I think we are,” he said. “When that decision was made, the kids accepted it right away. We knew it was out of our hands. We understand the challenges, but they are definitely ready.”
The Tigers were hit hard by graduation along both lines, which is surely going to be a factor in this transitional phase, Henington said.
“We lost a really good class,” he said. “But it’s the same typical attitude. It’s time to reload and develop that new chemistry, that new composition, and run with it, and be your own team.”
Said Andrade: “Now that we’re in the big division, it shouldn’t matter to us. It’s just another day at the office.”