Published: 1:00 pm, Fri. Dec. 2nd, 2016Updated: 2:16 pm
On a day of “football weather” by anyone’s standards, the Bulldog football team departed for the Class 5A state championship game to the fanfare one would expect from the City of Champions.
Crowds gathered at Bulldog Bowl and along 13th Street, where local authorities provided an escort and the Artesia Fire Department a water-cannon arc for a team heading to Albuquerque in search of the program’s record 30th state title.
Over the years, any number of opponents and their communities have regarded such festivities from afar and dubbed them “cocky,” the actions of a “tradition machine” that programs its athletes to expect nothing less than perfection.
But Artesians know nothing could be further from the truth.
The Daily Press spends three days each season that finds the ‘Dogs advancing to the title tilt compiling its State Championship Edition. The interviews conducted with Artesia’s athletes tell the story of a team that’s excited, by all means, but also keenly aware of their unique position.
As defensive lineman Codey Scott elaborated, “I don’t know of anywhere else where you have the chance to win three state championships in a row.” “Growing up here, this is what you always wanted to do – play in the state game for Artesia,” said receiver David Barlow.
The desire for another blue trophy to add to the case at the Bowl isn’t expectation – it’s simply hope. The hope of a community for its beloved high-school team, and the hope of a team largely comprised of young men who have dreamt since childhood of donning the orange in the big game.
The Bulldogs know the Sartans of St. Pius have their own hopes going into Saturday’s championship at Nusenda Community Stadium in Albuquerque.
St. Pius hasn’t won it all since 1999 – coincidentally enough, they won that game 22-12 over an Artesia team that would best them 28-20 in the championship two years later in 2001.
The Sartans are helmed by a veteran quarterback that is every bit the motor driving all aspects of their offense. The ‘Dogs saw Drew Ortiz last year in the Class 5A quarterfinal round, where he completed 19 of 27 passes for 161 yards and rushed for 79 more on 21 carries, his hand in each of Pius’ three touchdowns.
The Bulldogs struggled offensively in that bout, edging the Sartans 27-21, and Pius has had its heart set on avenging the loss.
“They really gained a lot of confidence, I think, from playing us close a year ago in the playoffs, and that’s kind of been their rallying point for a year – that they’re going to be back with another chance to play us,” Artesia coach Rex Henderson said Thursday. “They’re a really tight-knit group of guys that have worked pretty hard to get to this point, so they’ll be tough.”
St. Pius went 9-1 through a schedule admittedly low on significant challenges during the regular season. As far as common opponents go, they fell to Alamogordo 41-33 Sept. 16, blanked Lovington 51-0 Sept. 24, bested Valencia 48-8 Oct. 13, and blew out a Los Lunas team without the services of its star running back Oct. 21 before edging out Farmington 41-32 in the quarterfinal round and shocking Roswell High 42-7 in the semis.
“St. Pius is not your old-school St. Pius like what people are used to,” Henderson said. “If they came last year, they saw that. They’re very similar to what they were a year ago. It’s pretty much a lot of the same guys, so they have a lot of experience coming back.”
Ortiz comes into Saturday’s contest nearing the 2,700-yard mark in passing and the 1,300-yard ground mark with a combined total of 55 touchdowns.
“The biggest key, really, is the quarterback,” said Henderson. “He’s an exceptional athlete. He throws the ball well, and they’ve got good athletes with speed to catch it, but if you give him any kind of crease, he’s going to go.
“And that’s really what’s kind of made them difficult to stop this year for everybody. He moves well and tends to get a lot of yards scrambling with the football.”
The Bulldogs will be looking to continue what’s been a stellar defensive effort through the playoffs thus far while maintaining consistency and balance on offense.
“Defensively, (St. Pius) likes to be aggressive and get after you and be physical, so as well as we’ve run the ball this year, I look for them to probably make that an emphasis that they’re going to try to stop,” Henderson said.
Henderson says the ‘Dogs had an excellent week of practice, and as they left the huddle for the final time Thursday afternoon at the Bowl, their mindset was unanimous: “This is what we’ve been working for. And we’re ready.”
“It’s been a good week of practice,” said Henderson. “I think they’ve done the things they need to this week to prepare themselves for the state game. I think it’s been pretty focused, pretty crisp, and what you would expect at this time of year, so we’re excited. The kids are excited and ready to just get there and get on with it.”