Lee Roy Lucero
Prior to this Saturday afternoon’s 6A New Mexico state football championship game between the top-seeded Cleveland Storm and the second-seeded La Cueva Bears, few gave La Cueva a chance.
Sure, La Cueva came in with the best defense in the state, the most productive healthy running back D’Andre Williams and barely lost to Manzano 14-7 in last year’s title game.
Oh yeah, coach Brand Back’s Bears also were 12-0.
But it was the 12-0 record of Cleveland that caught the eyes of the prep world — and had since being 0-0 and preseason No. 1. The Storm unbeaten record just seemed more impressive to everyone.
Except to the Bears, who had a “huge chip on our shoulder” said Back. And the Bears used that big chip to completely dominate the Storm 33-14 and win the Class 6A crown.
La Cueva’s first possession resulted in zero yards and a three-and-out, and it looked like the Bears had received their copy of the Storm title script and were following through with it.
After the Bears Dominic Camacho punted, Cleveland first possession started on on the La Cueva 45. However, Cleveland was called for a penalty — unofficially its first of 13 — the Storm also went three-and-out. And there was a different feel to things.
Defensively, the Bears had control of the line of scrimmage. And they never returned it.
“What we do well at La Cueva is defense,” said La Cueva coach Brandon Back. “And we did it really well today.” And indeed, they did it. They held one of the best offenses in the state to 254 yards. “Our defense has played all week with a chip on their shoulder with all the white noise that has been out there all week,” added Back.
“It wasn’t just the defensive front that was dominate, but also their defensive backs,” ProView Networks’ Sebastian Noel said. “(The Bears) didn’t seem to have a real good matchup for Cleveland’s Tre Watson.”
“Looking at the size differential between Watson and La Cueva’s Jacob Carabajal on paper, it was like, just get the ball to Watson!”
Easier said than done.
“We have been working all week on stopping him (Watson),” said Carabajal. “We knew they were going to go to him, so I knew I had to play well.”
Carabajal surrendered nearly a foot in height to 6-foot-5 Watson, but had multiple pass breakups and nearly had himself a pick-6.
“I was so mad I dropped that,” says Carabajal. “I had a feeling he was going to throw a slant, so I jumped it.”
La Cueva dominated in all facets, and took the lead on its second possession when star senior running back D’Andre Williams busted free for a 60-yard scoring run. He finished the afternoon with 357 yards on 37 carries and two touchdowns.
“I had that much?” Williams said after the game. “I knew they were going to feed me the ball, and that my offensive line was going to put me in the right position to make plays.”
Back added, “We knew we had the ability to be that dominate,” Back said, “and if our boys worked hard enough and coaches put them in the right position they would dominate.
“D’Andre really opened everything up for us, our offensive line was great. And our quarterback, Dylan Summers, if he is good on offense, we are good on offense. And today, he was good.”
The Cleveland offense, which had been better than good all season, just never got it going. Even though La Cueva tired to throw the Storm multiple life preservers, including a Trey Ortega pick-6 off of Summers, and a blocked field goal attempt.
But Cleveland could never put it together and for the first time this year they could not overcome adversity. Perhaps it came too easy during the regular season, and when La Cueva punched the Storm in the mouth they could never recover.
Heath Ridenour’s Cleveland teams are well-coached, highly disciplined, and play hard. On Saturday, the Storm did not look like the well-oiled machine that New Mexico prep fans are used to seeing. They had numerous penalties that snuffed out multiple drives, including an apparent touchdown reception by Watson as the first half ended.
Watson took a pounding in making the catch, and he didn’t seem right the rest of the game.
The third quarter pick-6 by Ortega was the last real life shown by Cleveland as coach Back made the call to go nearly exclusively to the ground with Williams, but and got production from wide receiver Connor O’Toole, who ran the fly sweep to perfection. Williams added a 71-yard run that broke the Storm’s spirits and defensive back.
With the game out of reach 31-14, the Cleveland snapper sent the punt snap over punter quarterback Jeff Davison’s head into the end zone that resulted in the game’s final points — and another blue trophy for that extra large case at La Cueva High School.
***** For more information about the Class 6A title game and all the New Mexico state football championship games in Saturday, please visit the New Mexico Activities Association at https://www.nmact.org/ ******
Lee Roy Lucero is an Albuquerque native, former editor of The Red Menace website and a staff writer with Enchantment Sports. For tips or story ideas, particularly about high school sports, contact Lee Roy Lucero at enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.