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(Brienne Green - Daily Press)

(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Artesia defeats top-ranked Centennial 42-34

(Brienne Green - Daily Press)

(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The measure of a champion can be found in the way he responds to pressure – when the game is on the line, how does he react? Even more illustrative of the point: when the season is on the line.

The 2015 Bulldogs answered that question numerous times over the course of the year, twice in their quarterfinal and semifinal games alone. Then came Saturday, the 5A state championship. An undefeated opponent. A tie game. And nine minutes and 54 seconds left in the season.

Top-ranked Centennial had just scored on a 22-yard run to knot the contest for the second time that day. The Hawk faithful were on their feet, whipped into a froth by players leaping along the track at the Field of Dreams, urging their fans to rise up.

The volume only increased as a questionable personal foul was levied against the Bulldogs on the kick return, pushing the Artesia offense back to its own 15. A stadium synonymous in the City of Champions with unpleasant experiences had just become more hostile still.

But Justin Houghtaling had been there before. The senior quarterback calmly collected his offense, then proceeded to fire off a 16-yard first-down pass to Darius Ramirez to place the ‘Dogs near midfield. He followed by legging out another for 14 yards, which became 29 after a late hit penalty on the Hawks.

A six-yard toss to Chaz Matthews and a 10-yard run brought about first and goal at the 10, and Houghtaling connected with Matthews again from there for the go-ahead touchdown. 35-28 Bulldogs, 6:18 left to play.

“Trust the system,” Houghtaling said of the offense’s mindset in those final minutes. “Trust the system, trust each other, and just go out there like we have all game, all season, and finish off. Play the best quarter of our lives.”

Centennial’s second-half adjustments had been serving them well on offense, however, and that trend would continue.

Converting once on fourth down, the Hawks drove from their own 30 to the Bulldog 13 on six rushing plays, with sophomore running back Joaquin Gutierrez, quarterback Dante Lopez, and backs Keith Jasso and Bryce Rewalt all taking turns.

Jasso did the rest on two plays, losing a yard before scoring from the 14 to make it 35-34.

Just under three minutes remained in the game at that point, but Centennial coach Aaron Ocampo made a decision: Go for the lead. It didn’t pay off.

Lopez’s conversion pass fell incomplete, and the ‘Dogs headed into their final drive of the game with a one-point lead and excellent field position at the Hawk 47 following a big kick return by Carlos Carrasco.

A two-yard Houghtaling run and eight-yard pass to Ethan Duff made that the 37. And on third and four from the 31, Duff would take the handoff down the Artesia sideline, sprinting to the end zone. 42-34 Artesia with 45 seconds to go.

That 45 seconds would seem infinitely longer, as Centennial got a hefty return of their own to midfield. Junior Pena darted 11 yards from there, and Lopez hit Rewalt with a 15-yard pass to quickly propel the Hawks to the Artesia 24-yard line.

What should have been third and 10 from there, however, became first down at the 12 on another iffy call, this time pass interference. But chased out of the backfield, Lopez had no choice but to scramble out of bounds for no gain with two seconds showing on the clock.

As the Sea of Orange roared in support of their defense, Lopez dropped back, then a bit further, searching. All he saw in the end was the number 40 bearing down on him.

Junior defensive end Codey Scott made his 17th sack of the season one heard round the state, taking Lopez down for a loss of 10 and closing the book on Artesia’s history-making 29th state championship and first back-to-back win since the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

“I was going to go inside, but I saw him rolling out, so I just went at him, and I caught him,” Scott said. “We knew on that last drive we just had to stop them as a whole unit. We can’t do it without the whole team.”

And afterward?

“It feels good,” Scott smiled.

“It’s awesome,” said Houghtaling. “It’s still setting in.”

Suffice to say, those last 10 minutes will be remembered by the Bulldogs for a long, long time.

“I feel like it really was teamwork that allowed us to win this championship,” head coach Cooper Henderson said. “We had a lot of close games this year, and each time, different people and different parts of the team stepped up and made things happen when we needed them to.”

The Bulldogs got off to a dominant start Saturday at the Field of Dreams, opening the contest with a 16-play, seven-minute scoring drive.

With Isaiah Weideman and Robert Fernandez rattling off runs and Houghtaling sprinkling passes to Matthews, Leon and Duff, the ‘Dogs converted twice on fourth down before arriving at first and goal. Two Weideman carries later, Houghtaling would dive in from the one to give Artesia the inaugural lead, 7-0.

Centennial appeared poised to answer in kind, converting a pair of fourth downs of their own for a first and goal at the five, but the Orange Crush wrangled Gutierrez for a loss of one, held Pena to a three-yard gain, and Miguel Martinez knocked down a Lopez pass to hold the Hawks to a 21-yard field goal attempt as the second quarter began. The hold wasn’t clean, and the kick never left the ground.

Three plays later, Artesia would storm the end zone again as Houghtaling turned Duff loose for a 75-yard catch-and-run TD that made it 14-0 with 10:25 left in the half.

The defense forced a three-and-out to quickly return the ball to the ‘Dogs, and another short drive that featured a 15-yard run by Weideman culminated in a massive 52-yard bomb from Houghtaling to Leon at the goal line, who made the over-the-shoulder grab to give Artesia a 21-0 edge.

The teams would trade punts, and with Centennial downed at their own 11 late in the quarter, it looked as though that mark might hold at the break. But Gutierrez hauled the Hawks to midfield and Lopez did the rest, overcoming a sack for a loss of six by Jharyss Granger to convert on fourth down, then locating Jasso for a 16-yard score to prevent the first-half shutout.

The Hawks recovered the ensuing onside kick but went nowhere in 30 seconds, leaving the halftime tally 21-7.

Centennial certainly went somewhere to start the final half, however, after an onside kick by Artesia set them up at their own 45. Gutierrez took the first play from scrimmage 55 yards for a touchdown to pull the Hawks within a score 14 seconds into the third, and following a Bulldog three-and-out, the boys in black continued their second-half offensive onslaught.

The Hawks marched 70 yards on 14 plays to tie the game on a seven-yard pass from Lopez to Jasso. The celebration was short-lived, however, as – after a Carrasco kick return to the Hawk 30 – Houghtaling connected with Leon for a one-play touchdown drive that put the ‘Dogs back on top 28-21 with 3:18 to go in the third.

The Crush would force a punt with help from a Frost tackle for a loss, but the Bulldog offense stalled near midfield as the fourth quarter commenced, returning the ball to Centennial.

Jasso single-handedly took them from their own 30 to the Artesia 22, from whence Gutierrez would score to set up the dramatic finish.

Watching Scott’s game-ending sack was just a bonus for his teammates.

“We have a lot of faith in our defense, and again, Codey Scott comes up with a big sack,” said Matthews.

“I just felt like going over there and smacking Codey in the head with my head,” laughed Enriquez.

Houghtaling finished his final game as two-year starter for the Bulldogs 19 of 25 for 269 yards and four touchdowns, also scoring amidst nine carries for 23 yards. Duff had five catches for 113 yards and a TD, Leon nabbed three passes for 83 yards and two TDs, and Matthews was 5-31 with a score.

Weideman went 10-43 on the ground, Duff 5-35 with a TD, and Fernandez 3-21.

“It just feels amazing,” said junior Duff. “I had faith in my team. I didn’t even think about losing, and I’m glad I got to play with all these seniors this year and help them get here.”

“It’s a great feeling,” agreed Leon. “Last year was good, but being a senior and winning it is a lot better. We proved how good we were by showing up in the fourth quarter. It’s even better winning like this than it is winning by 30 because we know we’re the best in 5A, and that’s just a great feeling.”

For the Crush, in addition to Scott and Granger’s sacks, the D logged six tackles for a loss of a combined 10 yards on the day and two stops for no gain. Kicker Tanner Harris also went 5-5 on PAT and Granger 1-1.

Gutierrez was 18-176 rushing with two touchdowns for the Hawks and Lopez went 11 of 23 for 125 yards and two TDs. Centennial ends its final season in Class 5A with a record of 12-1.

“Centennial is a great ballclub, and they played well today,” Henderson said. “But we were able to make the critical plays at times when it made a difference in the game.

“We really appreciate the fans, cheerleaders, and the band for helping to create the great state championship atmosphere we had here today.”

The Bulldogs will bid farewell this year to 23 seniors, including Houghtaling, Matthews, Carrasco, Frost, Leon, Ramirez, Daniel Hernandez, Jacob Enriquez, Cooper Hall, Caleb Brewer, Clay Donaghe, Dieon Molina, Brandon Reza, Gerald Stubbs, Daniel Velo, Tristan Bowden, Santiago Morillon, Josh Fodge, Jacob Flores, Caleb Stubblefield, Anthony Pierce, Andrew Pierce and Jesse Gallegos.

“This group of seniors gave us good leadership and did a great job for us all year,” said Henderson. “They were a very enjoyable, easy group to coach, and I know they’ll do well in life.”

They left no doubt following the game that they’ll be carrying the memories made this year with them throughout.

“Back to back, that’s something not many people get to accomplish in their lives, and it’s just a blessed feeling,” said Matthews. “The program is set to make us better men, but our short-term goal is to win the state championship game, and we got it done.

“I was just looking over at Justin. This is what we’ve been dreaming about since we were little kids. In 10 years, nobody will remember who scored a touchdown, but it’s the memories of all the friendships, all the people around us, the community.”

“I wouldn’t trade this team for the world,” said Frost. “I just love these guys. They’re all my brothers.”

“I’m grateful for everyone on my team, for this moment, my family,” said Enriquez. “We had a lot of teamwork, and that’s what helped us pull it off in the end.”

“We’ve been working so hard for what we accomplished today, and I’m happy for all my teammates,” said Molina. “We were friends outside of football, we weren’t just stuck with each other, and that’s what makes a team is friends.”

“It’s great, and it’s great to be a Bulldog,” said Hernandez. “We worked hard this year, and hard work pays off.”

“I have never been more nervous in my life,” laughed Leon. “I had butterflies the whole game until that last sack, but then everything went away. Joy just went through me. It was a great feeling.”

“The whole seven years of Bulldog football just flashed through my head, and how it’s all coming to an end – but on a high note,” Carrasco said. “I love each and every one of these guys with all my heart, and I’d give anything for them.”

“What’s really great about this is that it wasn’t about one person,” said Houghtaling. “We really played as a unit. The coaches said it, everybody’s said it – if each person does their job, we’re pretty hard to beat. The only ones that can stop us are ourselves, so if everybody’s doing their job, we’re going to be successful. And we did that today.”

  • DEF-Carrasco2

    Carlos Carrasco makes a tackle during the second quarter Saturday. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • DEF-Frost1

    Grady Frost takes down Bryce Rewalt for a loss. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • DEF-GrangerSack1

    Jharyss Granger sacks Centennial quarterback Dante Lopez in the first half. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • DEF-ScottSack8

    Codey Scott sacks Centennial quarterback Dante Lopez on the final play of the game Saturday at the Field of Dreams in Las Cruces. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • DuffTD6

    Ethan Duff escapes the Hawk defense for a 31-yard touchdown run in the fourth. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • Houghtaling2

    Justin Houghtaling delivers a pass during the second quarter. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • LeonTD2

    Daniel Leon brings in a 52-yard touchdown pass from Justin Houghtaling. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • Matthews3

    Chaz Matthews works to elude a Hawk defender. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

  • WEideman4

    Isaiah Weideman takes a handoff from Justin Houghtaling. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)