Published: 12:00 pm, Fri. Dec. 4th, 2015Updated: 2:43 pm
When the Artesia Bulldogs and Centennial Hawks take the field Saturday at the Field of Dreams in Las Cruces, emotions will be running high. And that, coupled with the talent and successful 2015 seasons of both squads, means this one isn’t to be missed.
The ‘Dogs will be appearing in their record 33rd state championship game, vying for title No. 29, also the top number in New Mexico. Having accomplished all this in just the years since 1950, Artesia’s third-place spot in the national high school state championship record books is made more impressive by the fact the teams preceding them have been counting since the early 1900s.
The City of Champions. The Sea of Orange. A renowned tradition of success and an unrivaled fan support system will be behind the boys in orange as they look to repeat in Class 5A.
Centennial, meanwhile, is a team aiming to make a name for itself in a city with its own football history.
The kid brother of Mayfield and Las Cruces High – each of which holds eight state championship trophies – as well as Onate with one, the Hawks will be joining their city rivals where they rightfully belong in Class 6A next season. But having made the playoffs in three of their first four years of existence, exiting in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds in 2013 and 2014 respectively, Centennial is looking to take it one step further in their final year in 5A.
Sadly, the Hawks are aching from the loss of one of their assistant coaches in a Thanksgiving Day traffic accident. But they will no doubt be competing in his honor Saturday as they vie for their first title.
“When you look at this state championship, it really appears to be one that would be what people would want in a state game,” Artesia head coach Cooper Henderson said Thursday. “You have an undefeated team versus a team with one loss. You have your No. 1 seed Centennial versus No. 2 seed Artesia, and I think you have two football teams that have played very good football throughout the season.”
Centennial’s unblemished record has been the subject of much discussion in 5A, and it’s true the Hawks’ strength of schedule is middling.
But there’s no denying the squad has been dominant. A 42-35 win over Las Cruces High Sept. 25 was the highlight of the Hawks’ regular-season campaign. The ‘Dogs fell to the Bulldawgs 41-25 Oct. 2, albeit without the services of their starting quarterback.
Centennial had results similar to Artesia’s versus Valencia (55-13 to the Bulldogs’ 42-6), Belen (48-28 to Artesia’s 41-0) and Goddard (53-18 in the quarterfinals to the ‘Dogs’ 48-8 district win), and also blanked Moriarty 42-0 in the semis.
Averaging 48 points per game, the Hawk offense is led by 6’1”, 159-pound junior quarterback Dante Lopez, who has posted more than 1,900 yards and 32 touchdowns on the season. In the backfield lurks sophomore Joaquin Gutierrez, nearing the 950-yard rushing mark with 15 TDs.
A particularly stingy Centennial defense has limited opponents to an average of just 14 points per game thus far, spurred by the play of leading tackler Jake Boykin at linebacker and lineman Jerry Gurrola, who has nine sacks.
But the Bulldogs are used to challenges. They barreled 4-1 through the 6A portion of their regular-season schedule, persevering through a variety of personnel shakeups. They swept District 4-AAAAA and continued their trend of making big, crucial plays when they matter most in 27-21 and 42-35 playoff wins over St. Pius and Piedra Vista respectively.
“We’re really excited about our football team,” said Henderson. “This team has played real well and come through with the plays we’ve needed to win big games before, and we’re going to go in Saturday expecting to do the same.”
In terms of experience, the ‘Dogs have a number of athletes returning from their 2014 state title team who know what it will take to be successful.
“We’re excited to have a group of young men that has been here before and knows about playing in a state game,” Henderson said. “We know it’ll be the biggest test of the season, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. It makes it that much more of a fun challenge.”
With their loyal fans, as ever, behind them and their focus on the ultimate goal, the Bulldogs know it will take nothing less than their best to bring home the 29th blue trophy. They’re prepared to give that and more.
“We sure do thank all of the fans, our band, our cheerleaders, who have supported us all year long,” said Henderson. “We know it’s going to be an exciting environment come Saturday, and we look forward to playing for the 2015 5A state championship.”