Robert Garza can easily cite the year and the team.
The year? 2014. The team? Cibola.
Regular season: Cleveland 43, Cibola 7.
First round of the playoffs, two weeks later: Cibola 42, Cleveland 28.
“You have to throw that first game out the window,” said Garza, Cleveland High’s first-year head football coach – and in 2014, a Storm assistant watching the surprising events unfold.
As Class 6A’s top-seeded high school football team (9-2) prepares for its state semifinal matchup with No. 5 Volcano Vista (10-2) on Friday night at Nusenda Community Stadium, Garza has been keen to remind his team that their 56-21 victory over the Hawks on Sept. 30 has no practical application as the District 1-6A rivals duel for a berth in the 6A final.
The Cibola situation eight years ago seared a lesson into Garza’s brain, and now he must convey that same sense of caution to his players.
“That’s all we’ve been talking about all week,” he said.
Pairing up Friday are two of the state’s most elite offenses, piloted by quarterbacks Evan Wysong of Cleveland (1,811 passing yards, 27 TDs; 861/9 rushing) and Elliot Paskett-Bell of Volcano Vista (2,956/33 passing; 900/12 rushing).
Wysong is one third of a spectacular trio for Cleveland that includes senior running back Josh Perry (1,520 yards/22 TDs) and senior slot receiver Nic Trujillo (44 catches, 965 yards, 18 touchdowns). Trujillo and Wysong both are verbally committed to the Lobos.
Paskett-Bell, whose freelancing is frequently a marvel to behold, masterfully engineered a last-minute game-winning drive for Volcano Vista last week in its 35-31, first-round victory at No. 4 Hobbs.
“His pocket awareness is some of the best I’ve ever seen,” Garza said of Paskett-Bell. “He knows where the pressure is coming from and where to escape.”
Hawks running back Alijah Gonzales did not play in the first game, but he will play Friday and he is a valuable asset in the Volcano Vista backfield.
His counterpart, Perry, rushed for a season-high 250 yards on Sept. 30.
• The other 6A semifinal pits No. 2 La Cueva (10-1) and No. 3 Centennial (9-1) at the Field of Dreams in Las Cruces at 1 p.m. Saturday.
In early September, La Cueva scored two touchdowns in the final 4½ minutes to come from behind and beat Centennial 28-21 at Wilson Stadium.
“We were disappointed with how we finished that game,” Hawks coach Aaron Ocampo said. “I felt like we made a lot of mistakes.”
It was the Bears’ third-string running back, Cam Dyer, who scored on a 1-yard run with 1.1 seconds left for the game-winner.
And therein lies one of the things to watch Saturday in the rematch, as the two running backs ahead of Dyer who were injured that night, Gabriel Buie and Myuh Robertson, both are healthy. Buie didn’t play at all in the first game; Robertson got injured in the fourth quarter.
“That’ll be a big difference for us,” Bears coach Brandon Back said. “Both those guys bring such a dynamic to our running game.”
In the first meeting, La Cueva’s offense had success through the air but was limited to under 100 rushing yards.
Centennial, by contrast, had a robust evening on the ground with nearly 300 yards as a team, and 190 from senior back Mikah Gutierrez. Centennial QB Daniel Hernandez is also effective running behind a beefy offensive front, but Gutierrez (nearly 1,600 yards, 20 scores) is the primary carrier.
Back fears how well Centennial runs the football, which is a large reason why the first game was relatively low scoring.
“We have to do a better job this time,” Back said. “That’s been a problem for us all year. But defensively, in the last couple of weeks, we’ve made some big improvements.”
Ocampo likewise is wary of La Cueva’s senior quarterback, UNM commit Aidan Armenta, who’s thrown for nearly 3,300 yards and 40 touchdowns to a wide variety of passing targets led by Ian Sanchez (1,376 yards, 20 TDs).
“They’re very, very confident in their quarterback,” Ocampo said. “I would not be surprised if he was playing for the Lobos next year.”
Back, like Cleveland’s Garza, knows full well that an in-season rematch can lead to a completely different vibe on the field.
Take last year, when the Bears were soundly thrashed 50-0 by Rio Rancho in the regular season, but the teams played two overtimes in the state semifinals before the Rams advanced.
“The biggest difference,” Back said, “is that the two teams are so different.”