Published: 12:00 pm, Fri. Nov. 27th, 2015Updated: 2:07 pm
From the bygone days of Thanksgiving title games at Morris Field to leftovers and a trip to the Bowl, the playoffs have taken on a holiday feel of their own in the City of Champions.
This year was no different, with dinner table conversations inevitably turning to the upcoming semifinal matchup and relatives arranging travel plans around the game.
It’s an atmosphere like no other in high school sports. And it’s one that, in the modern era of New Mexico football, both Artesia and Piedra Vista are well accustomed to.
Since the institution of the expanded classification system in 2000, the ‘Dogs and Panthers have been perennial mainstays in the playoff bracket.
PV competed for the championship that first year, coming up short of Roswell High. This year – their fourth consecutive in the field of 12 after a three-year absence between 2008 and 2012 – the Panthers at No. 3 earned their highest seed since a No. 2 spot in 2006.
Eliminated in the semifinal round that year, Piedra Vista hasn’t advanced beyond the quarterfinals since, meaning the boys in blue and black will be hungry to buck that trend Saturday.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have tacked seven state championships to their tally of 28 since 2000, with last year’s path taking them through PV in the quarterfinals. The ‘Dogs dispatched the Panthers 54-7 at Bulldog Bowl – another factor that has contributed to Piedra Vista’s revenge mindset this season.
“Act like we can win. And we can win,” quarterback Elijah Gamboa told the Farmington Daily Times last week when asked what the key for his team would be Saturday. “We’ve seen them before and know what we’re going to face. We’ve been studying them all year like we were going to play them, so I think if we prepare right, we’ll come out of there with another victory.”
But the Bulldogs (10-1) have a hunger of their own going into tomorrow’s bout.
The squad was not satisfied with a third-quarter letdown that turned a 21-0 start into a 27-21 edging of No. 7 St. Pius in last week’s semifinal and will be focused on delivering a more complete game against the Panthers.
“We’re excited about a new challenge in the playoffs this week and more excited than anything just being in the semifinals and having an opportunity to play a game that would put us in the state championship,” Artesia head coach Cooper Henderson said Wednesday. “Our group has had a good week of workouts, and we’re looking forward to having a home game for this semifinal.”
The ‘Dogs and Panthers will be seeing some familiar faces on the field Saturday, with six starters returning offensively for Piedra Vista and three on defense.
Notably returning is Gamboa – albeit at a new position – running back Scott Ramirez, and backs Casey Simmons and Ryan Montoya. Montoya was under center for the Panthers in 2014, going three of 11 passing for 58 yards and rushing for another 28 on 11 carries. Gamboa, at slot back, ran six times for 11 yards and caught one pass for 42.
Ramirez led PV in stats, going 14-73 on the ground and scoring the Panthers’ lone touchdown in the fourth quarter in a six-yard run.
For the Bulldogs, QB Justin Houghtaling is back in his senior season after completing five of eight passes for 173 yards and two TDs versus the Panthers last year, as are several members of a defense that held PV to just 141 yards.
But the ‘Dogs know this is a new year and an improved Panther team.
Over the course of their 9-2 season, Piedra Vista’s defense has held its opponents to an average of 14 points per game while the offense has put up an average of 32. The Panthers bested Goddard 34-16 in Week Two and showed its progressive improvement last week in a 27-16 quarterfinal win over Roswell, a team the Panthers fell to 19-10 in Week Six.
PV held a slight 10-6 lead at the half over the Coyotes on an eight-yard touchdown run by Gamboa early in the game and a 30-yard field goal late in the first.
Roswell had its chances, missing an equidistant field goal in the second quarter and losing a fumble at the Panther five-yard line before getting on the board late in the half.
Piedra Vista was able to bump its lead to 15 in the fourth on TD runs of two and 24 yards by Gamboa, and although the Coyotes pulled within striking distance with 4:10 left to play, 24-16, a 35-yard field goal by the Panthers with 2:22 remaining made it a two-score game and rounded out the final, 27-16.
“We know that Piedra Vista is a team that, just like us, is in the top four, and we expect to have that type of ballgame this week,” said Henderson. “They had a good game against Roswell, and we foresee a tough battle.”
The Bulldogs will be counting on a few things Saturday. Perhaps chief among them is a persevering attitude that has carried the team to victory despite a number of setbacks this season. Behind that mindset are a defense as stingy and potentially game-changing as any in the state, and an offense that knows how to get the job done when it counts.
“We’ve done well this year with coming up with plays that make a difference and getting the win, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to do that again this week,” said Henderson.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Bulldog Bowl. Despite the inclement weather forecast, Artesians are encouraged to bundle up and turn out in support of a team that will be fighting for a shot at No. 29 at a time of year when the significance of that opportunity is not at all lost on them.
“Probably as a coach, one of the things you’d just like to say with it being Thanksgiving weekend is that you’re really thankful,” said Henderson. “We’re thankful for these young men we get to work with, we’re thankful to be in the community we’re in that supports young people so well, and we’re really just thankful to be in this nation and have the freedoms and chances to play a game like football this week.”