(Featured image by XL Sports Photography)
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
It didn’t take long before Chad Wallin realized his 2018 Volcano Vista Hawks would be a special high school football team.
Nearly as soon as the 2017 season ended.
“I saw something special with this group about the end of November last year,” Wallin told Enchantment Sports. “Our season was over in early November, we didn’t make the playoffs, but our kids started weight lifting and doing a lot of offseason stuff to get ready for this year.
“Instantly, with this group, it just had a different feel. There was natural leadership. There was good continuity between the juniors and the seniors, and our JV was undefeated last year.
“I thought, ‘Boy, if these guys can grow, we’re going to be pretty damn good.’ ”
On Friday (Nov. 23), the Hawks (9-2) try to continue their 2018 season with a Class 6A semifinal matchup with Cleveland (11-0).
The Storm is one of the only two teams to beat Volcano Vista all season. The other is La Cueva, which, like Cleveland is undefeated at 11-0.
The second-seeded Bears play host the other team in the 6A final four, Centennial. Those two play on Friday night at 7 at Wilson Stadium.
And by the way, the Centennial Hawks are also 11-0, possibly making this the strongest final four in big-school New Mexico football playoff history – a combined record of 42-2.
“You’ve got three undefeated district champions and the runner-up behind one of those,” Wallin said. “I’d say that’s strong. But we’re confident.”
Just as during the regular season, Volcano Vista’s Hawks seem to be flying a bit under the radar.
In recent years as part of District 6, the Hawks served as an also-ran behind powers Cleveland and Rio Rancho High. Those two schools combined to win the big-school state title three straight seasons until Manzano ended that streak last year.
Last year, while the Rio Rancho schools were again competing in the playoffs, Volcano Vista went 5-5, but 0-4 in a district that also included Cibola and Piedra Vista.
After New Mexico Activities Association realignments this year, Piedra Vista dropped to Class 5A. Volcano Vista, Cleveland, Rio Rancho and Cibola remained together, now as District 1-6A. West Mesa and Atrisco Heritage were tossed in as district cannon-fodder for the other four. (The Mustangs and Jaguars were a combined 3-17 overall and 1-9 in district.)
Cleveland was the overwhelming preseason No. 1 in the state this season, and has lived up to the billing.
Volcano Vista got a little attention in the preseason as well. But the Hawks pretty much slipped out of mind when they lost their season opener 38-26 to La Cueva.
“That was a tough way to start the season,” Wallin said. “But we were very green. We had, something like, eight new starters on defense and about seven new starters on offense.
“We had very little varsity experience, then we lose a tough one to La Cueva, but we played pretty well. I felt people (outside of the program) just turned the page and went on (not looking at us as one of the better teams), because we started the season with a loss.”
La Cueva, obviously, turned out to be a pretty good team – if you consider 11-0 and a district title pretty good.
And the young Hawks kept improving after that opener. They won their next six games by a 47-12 average.
Then came the showdown: Oct. 19 at Cleveland. Sure, the Hawks still had upcoming big games against Rio Rancho and Cibola. But if they were true playoff contenders, this was the time to show it.
And they were solid. Cleveland, which had destroyed just about every team in its path entering the night, only led the Hawks 54-46 with about four minutes left. But the Storm, behind sensational junior running back Dorian Lewis, drove 93 yards for a TD to clinch a 61-46 victory.
“Going into that game, everyone wanted to know, ‘Is Volcano Vista real or not? Could they contend for a blue trophy?’ ” says Adam Diehl of ProView Networks, who did play-by-play of the game. “I think the most impressive thing was they were down three scores, but came back they way they did.
“We knew after that, this team could make some noise in the playoffs.”
Lewis, who transferred from El Paso before the season, had nearly 300 yards in that meeting. But Lewis suffered a serious knee injury the following week in a 50-0 rout of West Mesa and hasn’t played since. There has been no official word on his status, but multiple sources told Enchantment Sports that Lewis is out for the season.
Wallin, obviously, has heard the same reports. But he said that won’t make the Hawks’ task any easier.
“I’m sure (Lewis) is not going to play, but the guys they have – like the (running back Randy) Nieto kid who Lewis replaced when he transferred in, is amazing,” Wallin said. “It’s still Cleveland; it’s not like they’re going to put a dog in there.”
After last month’s loss to Cleveland, the Hawks still had to regroup and take care of business in District 1. It wasn’t easy, but they slipped past Rio Rancho 38-35 and beat Cibola 35-21 in their regular season finale.
That was good enough to give Volcano Vista the No. 4 seed behind the trio of unbeaten giants in the Class 6A playoffs. The top four got a bye in the first round of the 12-team bracket.
All four won their quarterfinal games last week, with Volcano Vista eliminating Cibola 42-14. VV quarterback Jake Deatherage had a huge game, passing for 167 yards and two touchdowns, running for 88 yards and a score and even catching a halfback option pass for a TD.
Thus, the Hawks now play their seventh straight game against a district rival, their second against Cleveland and in a contest that will determine half the team’s in next week’s 6A state title game.
“I give them a fighters’ chance, for sure,” Diehl says. “Deatherage gives them a shot. He’s playing better than any quarterback in the state right now.”
Deatherage says the Hawks know the challenge, but they are confident.
“You look at their schedule,” Deatherage said of the Storm, “and they’ve blow everyone out of the water. But with us, it was a close game. So I feel like they really know who we are, and they will be prepared.
“But we’re going to be ready. We’re excited.”
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for four decades, and is one of the New Mexico’s most decorated sports journalists in history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.