Nothing can soothe the pain the Las Cruces Bulldawgs felt nine months ago.
But, as payback goes, this was about as much as they could hope to get.
Las Cruces was just about out of it Friday night against Eldorado, trailing by three scores when the fourth quarter began. Astonishingly, the Bulldawgs, keyed by their previously ineffective defense, erupted for 21 points in the first six minutes of that quarter, and roared back to shock the Eagles 49-45 at Wilson Stadium.
Future game of the year candidates in Class 6A football will have to produce some true magic to surpass this thrilling season opener.
“It’s the kids dealing with adversity and not getting their heads down,” said Las Cruces coach Mark Lopez, after his first victory in that role after many years as an assistant to the now retired Jim Miller. “They say you learn more from losses than you do from wins, but I call bullcrap on that one.”
He laughed, perhaps as much a nervous release of energy as anything else after this three-hour, back-and-forth battle. The last time Las Cruces met Eldorado, the Eagles kicked a field goal on the game’s final play for a 44-42 victory in the state semifinals last Thanksgiving weekend.
As much as any Bulldawg, Brandon Baeza remembers that loss. He dropped a sure interception in the fourth quarter of that game that very likely would have sent Las Cruces to the finals instead of Eldorado.
It was Baeza on Friday night who had the game-winning score, a 1-yard touchdown run with 6:28 remaining.
“I can’t even describe it,” said Baeza, a junior and one of New Mexico’s premier two-way players. “We’ve been working so hard for this.”
Indeed, the ‘Dawgs were salivating as they thought about this rematch throughout the offseason.
“All summer, we’ve been thinking about this,” senior linebacker Gabe Quezada said.
Las Cruces, after watching Eldorado score 21 straight, trailed 45-28 at the start of the final 12 minutes. The Las Cruces defense could simply not get off the field against an efficient and balanced Eldorado offense.
On the first play of the quarter, quarterback Payton Ball threw a 53-yard TD strike to Ivan Molina and the Bulldawgs were within 10 at 45-35.
Eldorado’s next offensive series was what truly changed the game.
Quezada’s 30-yard pick-6 of Eagle QB Matt Denis — just 45 seconds after Molina’s touchdown reception — cut the deficit to 45-42, and this game’s script was officially flipped.
“I read it, and having that edge on them helped a lot,” Quezada said.
Said Lopez: “We made a little adjustment defensively … obviously, nothing was working the rest of the game. Gabe is just a playmaker.”
On Eldorado’s next series, the Eagles had it fourth-and-1 from their 43 and went for it. Fullback Elias Baker had first-down yardage — but then he fumbled. Las Cruces recovered.
“He was running hard,” Baeza said, “but we caught him slipping right there, so we went for the strip.”
Las Cruces took over from the Eldorado 49. Six plays later, with Baeza lined up at QB, he took a direct snap and scored easily for the lead.
The teams combined for 947 yards — 476 for Eldorado, 471 for Las Cruces.
Ball threw for 276 yards and three TDs, and also rushed for a score. Denis threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns, and also had a 61-yard rushing TD three plays into the game.
Eldorado led this crazy game 30-28 at halftime after a 52-minute, 44-point second quarter.
LAS CRUCES 49, ELDORADO 45
Las Cruces 7 21 0 21 — 49
Eldorado 7 23 15 0 — 45
Scoring: E, Matt Denis 61 run (Andrew Shelley kick); LC, Payton Ball 4 run (Emilio Marquez kick); LC, Brandon Baeza 25 pass from Ball (Marquez kick); E, Dominic Anderson 4 pass from Denis (Shelley kick); E, Shelley 27 FG; LC, Ivan Molina 97 kickoff return (Marquez kick); E, Anderson 35 pass from Denis (Shelley kick); LC, Gabe Quezada 26 pass from Ball (Marquez kick); E, Trenton Gaither 5 pass from Denis (kick failed); E, Richard Gallegos 25 run (Shelley kick); E, Elijah Gudelj-Cox 44 run (Denis pass to Dominic Sandoval); LC, Molina 53 pass from Ball (Marquez kick); E, Quezada 30 interception return (Marquez kick); LC, Baeza 1 run (Marquez kick). Rec.: LC 1-0; E 0–1.
First downs: LC 25; E 19. Rushes/yards: LC 38-195; E 32-241. Passing: LC 18-28-0—276; E 21-36-1—235. Total offense: LC 471; E 476. Punts-avg.: LC 2-31.5; E 2-50.0. Fumbles-lost: LC 1-1; E 2-1. Penalties-yards: LC 7-71; E 4-36.