Cruising along Arenal Road past Rio Grande High, you can’t help but notice the immense construction project in front of the school.
However, there is plenty of construction ongoing behind the school as well.
And the foundation for the latter – being built on the Ravens’ football practice field – seems to be coming along quite nicely under first year coach Pat Quillen.
“There’s definitely a different feeling out here this year,” said senior quarterback Jacob Salazar. “Coach Quillen has instilled a bigger amount of confidence in us. We have more of our fundamentals down than we did last year, we have double the number of players on varsity and we definitely have a greater chance of success this year.”
Ah, success. It’s something that has certainly escaped the Ravens of late.
Last year, Rio Grande finished 1-9 under then-coach Jim Danner, with the season coming to an early – and very ugly – conclusion.
The Ravens’ final game against Albuquerque High was stopped in the second quarter when a brawl broke out. Rio Grande was leading 13-0 at the time, but the game was declared a double-forfeit.
The Ravens haven’t had a winning season since 2006.
“It’s time to start raising expectations,” said Quillen, who coached the past five years at Foothill, located at Albuquerque’s Youth Development and Diagnostic Center, and led that program into the 8-Man state title game last season. “Why are we here? To play football in late November (in the playoffs) – the same goal as everybody else.
“We have kids who haven’t played before who want to be a part of this. These are good kids. They just needed someone to believe in them. Kids want discipline, they want structure, they want to be pushed.”
Quillen, 40, learned much of that at Foothill, where the kids he coached were incarcerated, and many were rival gang members.
“It was an invaluable learning experience,” said Quillen, a West Mesa High and New Mexico Highlands graduate who also has been an assistant coach at AHS and Del Norte. “It gives me a lot of confidence and I learned how to build something from scratch. These kids deserve better, and they will get better.”
Quillen, who was hired in December, went throughout the school recruiting RGHS students to come out for football, and he has raised money for new uniforms and is trying to change attitudes.
“I’m out here because of the coaches,” said junior Mark Hussey, a standout wrestler who transferred from Los Lunas but hasn’t played football in nearly four years. “Coach Quillen kept after me to play for a while. I bought into his program, and it’s looking up a lot from last year from what I can see.”
The 6-foot, 200-pound Hussey is a fullback and defensive lineman.
Rio Grande will use a variety of offensive formations “fit around the talent we have,” Quillen said, and will be led by Salazar.
“He has a 4.0 grade-point average and is a tremendous leader,” Quillen says. “He is so intelligent, he picks up on everything so fast.”
Salazar hopes that also equals getting off to a fast start – something that didn’t happen last year when he had an appendectomy the day before the Ravens’ first game.
“I have a lot of making up to do,” Salazar said. “I missed the first five games last year, so this year means so much to me.”
Salazar, who is being recruited by some Division II and Division III schools, is joined in the backfield by massive running back Jalen Ned.
Ned, a 6-foot, 260-pound senior, is also a standout defensive end and said he’s being recruited by the University of North Texas and other schools.
He said he has deep regrets what happened against Albuquerque High.
“A lot of frustration built up between two schools that weren’t successful at all,” Ned said. “It just came to a point that it just showed in a really bad way. It was hard, because there were two (college) schools watching me play and they saw me act inappropriately. I was on the field when it happened.
“But the attitude on this team is so different. We have new coaches and a lot of new players – wrestlers, basketball players, baseball players – they all came out. We have really good team chemistry and a lot of skill guys. Our goal is to make the playoffs. I know we can do it.”