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‘Dogs, Cavemen open season together for first time

since 1930 in 100th edition of storied rivalry


8-26-StartersWhen the Friday night lights illuminate the start of a new season at Bulldog Bowl, there’s always a little something extra in the air.

The anticipation of a fresh start, the excitement surrounding the return of football season, the element of the unknown – all contribute significantly to what coaches have long called “the first-game jitters.”

No team, no matter how confident, is immune.

But if that takes the atmosphere at Bulldog Bowl to the top of the palpability meter, this year’s season opener is liable to snap the needle.

For the first time since 1930, the Artesia Bulldogs and Carlsbad Cavemen will usher in a new season together. The storied rivalry known as the Eddy County War, which typically arrives mid-season when both squads have a good idea of what they’re capable and how to approach the battle for county bragging rights, has come early this year.

For the 100th time, get ready for a show.

“In a situation where you’re used to playing somebody a few games in and knowing a little more about them, it definitely makes it difficult,” first-year head coach Rex Henderson said Thursday. “Especially with it being Coach (Gary) Bradley’s second year in Carlsbad, he’s still implementing his program, and we’re still getting used to preparing for that.

“We feel good about what we’re getting ready to do, but at the same time, you can’t say you know just a whole lot about Carlsbad at this point. And hopefully, they don’t know a whole lot about us, either. The first week, you’re really just kind of anxious to see what kind of team you’re going to put on the field. You have an idea in your mind as a coach of what that’s going to look like, but you don’t know till you get out there and see them play.”

Both the ‘Dogs and Cavemen have some notable contributors back from last season’s meeting.

Jonah Leyva returns at quarterback as a senior for Carlsbad. He compiled 106 passing yards – 75 of them on a touchdown pass – on five completions in 2015. Ethan Duff, who logged 40 receiving and 32 rushing yards and a TD sprint is back for Artesia, along with running back Isaiah Weideman, who posted 51 rushing yards on nine carries.

Artesia won that contest by a final of 31-13 at Ralph Bowyer Stadium in Carlsbad.

“Carlsbad is going to have good team speed,” said Henderson. “He really wants to run the football, and they’re working toward more of that even than they did a year ago. But they’re capable of throwing the ball well when they need to, and they showed that in the scrimmage with Lovington.

“Carlsbad, to me, hasn’t ever completely changed their defensive philosophy, regardless of the coach. They’re going to be aggressive and physical, and play hard up front, and combine that with the good team speed they have. I feel like it’s going to be a pretty similar Carlsbad defense to what we’ve seen in the past.”

As for the Bulldogs, Henderson is excited to see how the impressive work they’ve done in the preseason will translate on the field.

“Our off-season workouts have been so good, and the kids have had such great energy,” he said. “We’re pretty excited about what we’ve been able to get done to this point compared to other seasons. It helps that we have good experience on both sides of the ball.

“We’re just anxious to get out there and play, I think, and see if it all comes together like we picture it in our minds. But we feel like these guys have done well to this point, and it’s time to go play and see it pay off.”

A first game also always comes accompanied by a wide range of variables. In football, special teams play is generally chief among them.

“The kicking game is a pretty key component in the first game,” Henderson said, “because that’s the one thing you really don’t scrimmage. You don’t really put your special teams out in a scrimmage, and even if you do, you don’t put them in a normal situation. You’re not putting them out when it’s fourth-and-15 from your one-yard line and you have to punt.

“Whichever team wins the kicking game is going to have a big advantage. So we want to be that team.”

The 100th meeting of Artesia and Carlsbad will be different from most to say the least. But there’s something exciting about the combining of the season opener and the Eddy County War, and Henderson is ready to see how his athletes respond.

“The Eddy County thing, whether we want it to or not, plays into the variables a little bit,” said the coach. “What kind of energy is that going to give them? You don’t know. But it’ll be exciting to see how we respond to that atmosphere at game time.”