By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Cleveland High School simply did what it has done all season.
And Rio Rancho, N.M., will again do what it has done much of this decade.
On Friday night, top-ranked Cleveland made the big plays and visiting Volcano Vista made the key mistakes, and the Storm took a 43-39 win in the Class 6A state football semifinals.
The victory keeps Cleveland’s perfect season alive, and gives the city of Rio Rancho yet another opportunity to host a big-school state championship game. On Saturday (Dec. 1) at 1 p.m., the Storm play host to La Cueva in a monster matchup of unbeatens.
La Cueva also won its semifinal on Friday night, whipping previously undefeated Centennial 41-14 at Wilson Stadium.
“I really haven’t seen any tape yet on La Cueva,” said Cleveland coach Heath Ridenour, who has led the Storm into the semifinals in five of his seven years.
“We have developed a nice little rivalry with La Cueva. It should be a great game, and worth the $10 or whatever it costs to get a ticket.”
Last year, the Bears beat Cleveland twice – including 37-34 in overtime in last year’s semifinals. The Bears rolled the Storm 30-7 in the regular season matchup.
Since both are 12-0, the two, obviously, have not played this season.
This will be the first time since 2008 (when Las Cruces beat Eldorado 26-21) that two unbeaten teams are squaring off for the big school state title.
This is also the fourth time in the past five years that the City of Vision will host the big-school championship game. Cleveland and Rio Rancho High have each done so twice.
The Storm (12-0) won the title on their home field in 2015. Rio Rancho High, which lost in the first round of this year’s playoffs, won state titles on its home turf in 2014 and 2016.
Cleveland, in only its 10th season, also won the title at Mayfield in 2011, which, pretty much, kick-started Rio Rancho’s decade of dominance.
“It really says something about this community to have that many championship games here,” said Rio Rancho Public Schools athletic director Larry Chavez. “It starts from the top, with superintendent Sue Cleveland, (Cleveland high principal) Scott Affentranger and (Rio Rancho principal) Sherri Carver. There is just so much support here.”
Matt Martinez, in his first year as athletic director at Cleveland – replacing Chavez, who moved up to his spot when Bruce Carver retired this year as RRPS athletic director – said “It’s hard to beat this. It’s already been quite a first year. This is just a great school district to be in.”
While the Storm rolled through most of their regular season, they got their second tough test from Volcano Vista.
Cleveland used a long touchdown drive in the final minutes to hold off Volcano Vista 61-48 earlier this season, and it had to come from behind to win on Friday.
The Storm didn’t take control until a series of key plays led to back-to-back touchdown runs by Randy Nieto just 10 seconds apart in the waning moments of the third quarter.
Volcano Vista (10-3), runner-up to Cleveland in District 6, scored the game’s first points on a 49-yard romp by star senior quarterback Jake Deatherage with 3:39 left in the first quarter.
Cleveland running back Colten Madison scored on a 3-yard run just before the first quarter ended, but the Storm missed the extra point.
The Hawks continued their offensive efficiency in the second quarter, and VVHS’ Jimmy Gallegos scored on a 3-yard run before the Storm cut it to 14-12 on a 22-yard pass from quarterback Jeff Davison to Braedin Ross. Cleveland failed on the 2-point conversion.
Volcano Vista soon took the momentum. Deatherage, who completed 16-of-23 passes on the night for 277 yards and rushed for 86 yards, tossed the first of his three TD passes to Ross late in the second quarter to make it 21-12.
The Storm needed to respond, but on their next drive they had a fourth-and-1 at midfield with less than two minutes left in the half. It was a huge play, and Davison ran for 2-yards for a first down. Two plays later, Davison hit Ross on a 41-yard pass, then scored on a 7-yard run with 1:18 left in the half to cut the Jags’ lead to 21-19.
“That was really big for momentum; for us to score before the half like that,” said Cleveland senior running back Nieto. “We really needed it. That got us going in the second half.”
Indeed. Cleveland drove 72 yards in 10 plays on the first possession of the second half to take its first lead. Davison capped the march with an 18-yard strike to Ross, and it was 26-21.
After the teams exchanged three-and-outs, the game took a nasty turn for the Hawks.
On a fourth-and-8 from their own 44, the Hawks ran a brilliant fake when punter Jacob Werner took off to his right, then handed the ball to Blaine Grant – who was lined up all the way to the right — and raced to the left end. Grant ran 17 yards and an apparent first down, but an illegal block-in-the-back was called downfield to erased the play.
The Hawks then punted, but soon had Cleveland backed up with a 3rd-and-11 and its own 24. But Davison made another huge play, hitting Tre Watson for a 49-yard gain. Four plays later, Nieto scored on a 3rd-and-goal from the 6 with just 1:04 left in the third quarter for a 33-21 lead.
On the first play after the kickoff, Deatherage fumbled the ball away at his own 18. On the next play, Nieto covered those 18 yards with a sprint up the middle. With 54 seconds left in the period, it was suddenly 40-21.
“That just took the wind out of them,” Ridenour said. “After that, it was just a game against the clock for us. There are plays that can make-or-break you, and there were three or four like that tonight.”
Volcano did its best to make a game of it, scoring three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But it missed an extra-point kick and failed on a pair of 2-point conversions and two onside kicks. Both of the latter were recovered by Nieto, who is also a wrestler at the school.
“I get to wait for another week to hit the wrestling mats,” the 5-foot-5 Nieto said with a smile. “… We got the running game going in the second half, and our offensive line was the difference.”
Nieto finished with 51 yards rushing on 14 carries while Madison had 67 yards on 16 carries.
“I live in Rio Rancho, I pay taxes to Rio Rancho and we all pull for each other in Rio Rancho,” Ridenour said. “Both high schools take a lot of pride in representing Rio Rancho.”
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.