Published: 3:00 pm, Thu. Aug. 27th, 2015
There’ll be a definite air of déjà vu around the 2015 Bulldogs’ season opener Friday.
The team will be returning to the site of the 2014 Class 5A State Championship in Belen, a place where they romped to the program’s 28th football title. The lights will cutting the surrounding blackness in the corner of Belen High School’s campus, just as they were for the title tilt, an unusual evening affair at the behest of longtime Eagle coach John Lerma.
And while the crowds will likely not compare to those that converged on the small field in December 2014, there’s no question Belen fans will be prominently on hand in hopes of seeing their squad avenge last year’s result.
But while the atmosphere will be similar, the two teams standing opposite one another Friday will be fresh, untested, and simply looking to learn where they stand as the new season commences.
“I think the opening ballgame of the season is always one of the most exciting because of the unknowns,” Artesia head coach Cooper Henderson said today.
“Each year it’s a different team, a different group, and it’s always enjoyable and fun to see as the season progresses where your leadership is going to come from, who starts gaining more confidence and who makes you do things better each week.”
While both the ‘Dogs and Eagles graduated a number of key athletes from last year’s teams, both return with a few familiar faces.
Artesia has the edge in terms of returning personnel with quarterback Justin Houghtaling back under center for his senior season, experienced running back Jesse Gallegos beside him, and a few receivers who saw quality varsity playing time in 2014 to boot.
The Orange Crush defense also is anchored with solid experience in the linebacker and defensive back positions.
Belen returns a trio of starters on both sides of the ball. Offensively, none contributed to their offensive statistics against Artesia in 2014, while defensively, 5’9″, 180-pound senior Adan Contreras returns most notably at linebacker.
Houghtaling had passing success in both of the ‘Dogs’ meetings with Belen last year – their 40-14 season-opening win at Bulldog Bowl and the 49-21 championship – going 13 of 18 for 237 yards and four touchdowns Dec. 5, 2014. Artesia outgained the Eagles 473 yards to 297 in that contest.
“Belen is a well-coached team,” Henderson said. “Coach Lerma is a very experienced, good coach.”
As for Artesia’s goals Friday, Henderson will be looking for his squad to capitalize on their experience in the kicking game, as well as to show the poise needed to overcome the inevitable first-game errors.
“This year we’re fortunate in the sense that we have experience in one particular area of the game that’s always a big question mark for teams early in the season and has a bigger impact on the outcome of ballgames because of that, the kicking game,” Henderson said. “We have a returning kicker, extrapoint kicker, punter and snapper, so we would hope that would be a strength for us going into Friday night’s game and an area we can excel in, not only because of the experience but because of the work we put into it.
“We come into this ballgame with high expectations, but at the same time, you’re realistic that early in the year, it’s not all going to run smooth. I think being able to handle mistakes in opening games is important.
You’re going to have a few mistakes, you just have to be able to handle them and move forward.”
As is the case for any team, Artesia will be aiming to begin the development of their team chemistry in their first action of 2015, learning what they’re capable of and where growth is still needed, and, preferably, picking up right where they left off.
“It’s interesting going back to the same site you finished last season to start the year, and we would hope to come out with as good an outcome,” said Henderson.
“We’re really looking forward to finally getting into a real ballgame, playing somebody other than ourselves, and just having that Friday-night experience of what high school football is all about.”