Two down for the La Cueva Bears.
One to go.
La Cueva’s District 2-6A championship aspirations received a comprehensive boost Friday night, as the Bears rallied – twice, including in the fourth quarter – to grind out a 28-17 win over Sandia at Wilson Stadium.
“We treated it as if it were the district championship,” La Cueva quarterback Beau Kujath said. “This was a huge win for us.”
La Cueva outscored Sandia 14-0 in the final 12 minutes.
Going by results, there is little separating the top four teams in this district. In the head-to-head games so far between the Bears, Matadors, Eldorado and Manzano, no one has beaten the other by more than 12 points.
Sandia represented the second of three important tests in district for La Cueva. After a matchup against winless Highland next week, Manzano is the last of the three tests, on Nov. 7.
La Cueva (5-2), coming off its bye, is 2-0 in 2-6A and has beaten Eldorado and Sandia.
“It was an extremely important win,” Bears coach Brandon Back said. “We weren’t looking past anybody, but we knew this win (could improve) our seeding (for the postseason).”
As expected, this was a matchup centered around run offense, run defense and time of possession. Tellingly, La Cueva scored on its final three, full drives to finally put away the Matadors (5-4, 1-2).
To that end, the Bears only had the ball twice in the second half after the teams were knotted 14-14 at halftime.
Sandia consumed the first seven minutes of the third quarter, a drive that culminated with Paul Rosales booting a 36-yard field goal.
The Matadors had to settle for three because on a third-and-1 from the La Cueva 17, Bears linebacker Thomas Vieira exploded into the backfield and swarmed Malik Gordon for a 3-yard loss.
La Cueva got the ball and went 76 yards for the go-ahead score. Javohn Jones capped the drive with a 6-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 21-17 edge.
This field goal/touchdown exchange, Sandia coach Kevin Barker admitted, was crucial. So was La Cueva forcing Sandia into a quick punt before embarking on the kill-shot drive.
The Bears went 85 yards in 15 plays, consuming about 7½ minutes of clock in the fourth quarter in the process.
Kujath authored the night’s most memorable play. Near midfield, he ducked out of a sure sack, then threw 33 yards to Aaron Overacker at the Sandia 20.
“Beau is incredible,” Jones said. “He makes plays out of nothing.”
Four plays later, the Bears had it fourth-and-1 at the Matadors 11, and decided to go for it.
Mitchell Cantwell made the first down by about half the length of the ball, and Jones scored from the 1 moments later for an 11-point lead with 2:58 remaining.
The Bears gift-wrapped Sandia’s first score after fumbling at their own 1. Gordon scored to make it 7-0. Midway through the first, Kujath threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Noah Hill to tie the game.
Cantwell scored from the 5 with 3:58 before halftime for La Cueva, but the Matadors answered in the final minute of the half as Carter Phillips threw 20 yards to a wide open Ben Hamrich.
After a strong first half running the ball, La Cueva’s defense limited Sandia to just 48 rushing yards after halftime.
By contrast, the Bears had 134 yards on the ground in the final two quarters.
“It really comes down to our O-line,” Jones said. “They came through. We put it in their hands.”
Barker said he believed that four of the top eight teams in Class 6A are in his district, and clearly he was already thinking ahead to how Friday’s loss might impact his team’s playoff position.
“Hopefully, our résumé is enough that we’ve earned a first-round home game (in the playoffs),” Barker said.
Back, who a month ago worried that his team might not be able to get a top-four seed and first-round bye, said he now is convinced that if La Cueva wins the district, it will get the first weekend of the postseason off.