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As the August sun began casting the shadow of Bulldog Bowl’s massive press box over the heads of the 2017 Artesia High School football team, a series of shouts rose from the coaching staff as the ball took flight off the fingers of senior quarterback Taylor Null.

Sprinting ahead of the Onate secondary was a sizable target in 6’5” wide out Joe Willingham, and Null’s pass hit him in stride. Willingham turned on the afterburner en route to the end zone, and as the AHS band struck up the fight song, an appreciative cheer erupted from the fan-laden home bleachers.

It sounds like a scene from a season-opening ballgame. It was, however, a scrimmage.

(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Such is life in Artesia, where football-starved residents turn out in droves each year to grab a burger grilled up by the local Quarterback Club and conduct their casual evaluations as the ‘Dogs engage in their first game-format action.

They can be found earlier in the summer, too, pulling over along Grand Avenue to watch the squad execute its drills on the practice field during two-a-days or standing along the railings at the Bowl for a glimpse of a passing game.

The atmosphere at this season’s intermural bout against the Knights felt even more eager than usual, though. The 2016 campaign left a bad taste in Artesia’s mouth in more ways than one, and the energy carried an element of hopefulness at the thought of a clean slate and a fresh start.

The Bulldogs began the process of putting the past behind them as soon as spring workouts commenced, and each step toward Aug. 25 and the first game of 2017 has added more distance still.

It’s a new season in the City of Champions. And the boys in orange are ready.

Bulldog Days

It can often be difficult to motivate teen boys to forego a summer in which the most strenuous decision would be which TV show to binge watch next in favor of early mornings in the gym.

But from the weights and skills program to the seven-on-seven docket to the start of two-a-days, head coach Rex Henderson and his staff were pleased to see their athletes putting in the time.

(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“I thought our summer workouts went real well,” Henderson says. “We had really good attendance. Our seniors in particular were here and present like you’d want them to be. Our junior class was a little more hit-or-miss, but it was still pretty good attendance, so we were able to accomplish some good things.”

The ‘Dogs were able to see a solid mix of opponents over the course of the summer in passing game action, and those outings were of benefit, Henderson says, not only to Artesia’s offensive skills unit but its defensive backs, as well.

“We saw some really good strides, particularly with our younger guys in the defensive secondary, through the seven-on-sevens,” says the coach. “I thought our secondary made big jumps throughout the course of the summer, and I was really pleased with the progress they made.”

Once the sleds were out and the pads were on, the Bulldogs’ largely untested offensive line began stepping up to impress the staff , as well.

“Last year, our offensive line was pretty much all seniors,” Henderson says. “This year, there’s going to be three seniors and two juniors starting, and they’re pretty strong guys. They worked hard in the offseason.

“We’re looking forward to seeing what we get out of them this year, because they showed good progress this summer and into the first few weeks in pads.”

Just before the start of classes, the ‘Dogs were able to get a taste of full-contact action – albeit tempered – Aug. 10 in their intrasquad scrimmage, and it turned out to be a valuable learning experience.

“We were real pleased with the intrasquad,” Henderson says. “It’s kind of hard because you want to look good on both offense and defense, but you’re going against yourself. But I felt like we saw what we wanted to see as coaches.”

(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Henderson says he and his staff were able to get a much better picture of where their athletes stood to cap off the summer, which will aid them in their evaluations going forward.

“We’re still early in the year, so we’re still making evaluations and trying to see who’s going to respond well to live action,” says the coach. “So I thought for their first time being challenged in that kind of situation, we stepped up and handled it pretty well.

“We saw some good things from the guys we’re expecting to start or rotate in, but it gave us a chance to see where everybody’s at, and I feel like we learned a lot of things coming out of it and also watching the film. There’s still a whole lot of things we’re not doing well, but I think we’ll be able to improve on them in the next few weeks.”

Familiar Faces

Programs like Artesia’s are known for their ability to reload even in the face of mass graduations, but a little returning experience to ease the burden is always appreciated. Even more appreciated is a lot of returning experience.

As an added bonus, the ‘Dogs have theirs in some key positions, meaning veteran units will be able to hold down the fort while the more inexperienced units find their footing.

“We’ve got five returning starters on offense this year and six on defense, so it’s pretty good numbers,” says Henderson. “It’s probably more than we even realized after last year, because we also have several people who started at some point and some guys who also rotated in quite a bit.”

(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Notable for any team is a returning signal-caller, and Null is back another year stronger and wiser after helming the offense in 2016. The senior passed for more than 3,000 yards and 41 touchdowns last season, and to sweeten the deal, a few of his favorite targets are back with him.

Tyler Greenwood, Kameron Aguilar and Chaney Hardt all started as receivers in ‘16, and Null will also have a veteran running back by his side in the shotgun in Robert Fernandez, who rushed for nearly 600 yards last year.

“There’s also Isaiah Farmer, who was our sixth offensive lineman a year ago as a sophomore and will be a starter this year as a junior,” says Henderson. “So really, it’s six guys who had a significant amount of playing time, and that’s a good nucleus.”

Opposing offenses will be distressed to learn the Orange Crush returns its linebacker corps intact, as well.

Three-year starter Miguel Martinez will once again roam in the Mike slot, with Jorge Avitia on the inside and Blake Pruitt and Colin Flood on the edges.

While this year’s defensive line and secondary positions will be predominantly filled by athletes with no prior varsity experience, they’ll be able to take their cues from another pair of veterans: DL Eddie Pando and DB Denver Williams.

“These are all experienced guys who’ve been playmakers for us, and it’s a good group to have back,” says Henderson.

The War’s Still Coming Early; The District’s Still The Ultimate Goal

Many fans were dismayed last season to learn the froth they usually have a few weeks to work themselves into en route to the Eddy County War had no choice but to commence to fizzing early.

With Class 6A’s districts muddled enough to drive its southern coaches to drink, the state’s big schools found themselves with next to no time for interclassification showdowns. Knowing a rivalry that dates back to 1927 could not be put on hiatus, however, Artesia and Carlsbad were forced to make it their opener, instead.

But the strangeness of the situation ultimately added to its appeal. Crowds that tend already to tip the scales for the annual meeting between the Bulldogs and Cavemen did themselves a few thousand better, taking the atmosphere at Bulldog Bowl from “big high school rivalry” to “music festival at which Bruno Mars must be playing.”

(Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“It’s still kind of different for both communities to play this early, but it’s still a pretty high-stakes game community wise,” says Henderson.

And while Henderson and Carlsbad skipper Gary Bradley – both coaches who happen to hail from football families legendary in New Mexico – know the atmosphere can’t help but bleed over onto the field, they also expect their athletes to treat it like any other season opener: just a chance to improve.

“You’re starting out, you want to get better, and obviously you want to win, but when you see the 5A teams on your schedule… as much as you want to do well in rivalry games, you better do well in your class if you’re going to get where you want to be at the end,” Henderson says. “But it’s fun. That was a fun atmosphere a year ago, and it’ll be interesting to see what it’s like in Carlsbad this year, since their seating isn’t quite what ours is.

“I’m sure there’ll be a bunch of people in blue yelling at us, and they’re going to be as excited as we are about the start of the year.”

From there, Artesia will head into its traditional Week Two matchup against 6A Hobbs, a game that has also achieved added interest from fans over the past several years.

“They’ve kind of turned that into a rivalry, as well,” says Henderson. “I don’t know whether Artesians consider it a major rivalry or not, but it’s a big deal in Hobbs, and we know they’re going to be ready to come play. We’ll have to make sure we’re ready to get after them.”

Head coach Charles Gleghorn declared his team ready to take on all comers in a recent KRQE interview, and Henderson says the ‘Dogs’ D will need to be prepared to make the necessary shift in focus.

“Carlsbad is a little more run-oriented and Hobbs is a lot more pass-oriented, so that’s a big change for our defense,” says the coach. “We’ll have to be ready to make that flip in one week.”

A pair of 5A teams that struggled mightily last season are next on the Bulldogs’ docket, but Henderson stresses Artesia will not be overlooking them.

“Valencia has been pretty young for the last two years,” says the coach. “They played a lot of freshmen and sophomores two years ago who were sophomores and juniors last year, so it’ll be interesting this year to see if they’ve grown up in that system.

“Deming has a new coach (Greg Simmons), so we won’t know until we get closer to that game if it’s kind of a similar philosophy on offense and defense or not.”

Artesia will then prepare to head north for another clash of the titans as they take on 6A Cleveland in Rio Rancho.

The ‘Dogs battled against the second-ranked team in the state’s largest class last year before ultimately coming up short, and they’ll be looking forward to another mid-season test from the Storm.

“I’m excited about that,” says Henderson. “It’s supposed to be a pretty nice field; I know their kids were impressed with their visit down here a year ago.

“They’ll be good for sure. Just like last year, I’m sure they’re going to be huge and fast and able to do a whole lot of things. They’ve got a lot of guys to work with, and Coach (Heath) Ridenour is doing a good job with that program.”

The Bulldogs will return to 5A action to close out their regular-season slate, first traveling to Los Lunas to take on the Tigers before returning to the Bowl to host even more Tigers, this time from Alamogordo.

“Los Lunas is where Coach (Jeremy) Maupin is, so that’s going to be a fun reunion,” Henderson says. “We kind of know what they’ll be doing better than some of the other new coaches, so it’ll be interesting to see how they’ve adapted to what he’s doing there.

“They’ll be talented. They’ve got some key guys back from that team a year ago, including their quarterback, so they’ll have some pretty good playmakers on both sides of the ball.”

Alamogordo will also be ushering in a new era under the leadership of coach AJ Cisco.

“He’s the son of Jack Cisco, who a lot of people will remember was at Roswell High years ago, so they’ll be – we think – a little more run-oriented, and that’ll be a shift for them,” says Henderson. “It’ll be late in the season, so they’ll have had some time to adapt, but it’ll be interesting to see, because that’ll be a big change for those kids from what they’ve been doing.”

The ‘Dogs kick off their District 4-AAAAA season this year against Roswell High at Wool Bowl.

The Coyotes surprised everyone but their district mates in 2016 by earning a No. 3 overall seed and powering their way to the state semifinal round before falling to St. Pius. Henderson says he expects to see a Roswell team poised for a similar effort this year.

“I think we can all just get used to them being one of the powers in our class,” says the coach. “Coach (Jeff ) Lynn has done a great job with that program, and they’ve got some good talent back. They’ve also picked up some good kids from outside, so they’re going to be set up.

“To not have been much of a playoff team for so many years and then to make a semifi nal run was a pretty big jump for them, so they’ll probably be riding off some of that momentum.”

Oct. 27 will find the Goddard Rockets at Bulldog Bowl with both teams looking to put “The Incident of 2016” behind them.

“Goddard is an interesting situation because they always seem to reload,” Henderson says. “Every time you think, ‘Well, Goddard’s not going to have anybody back,’ they always have a bunch of guys step up.

“They graduated some really good seniors and some guys that were really key, so it’ll be interesting to see where they are. They’re going to be tough, you at least know that, and they’ll come to get after you.”

Henderson will also be looking to see a much-improved Lovington team in 2017 as last year’s young athletes grow into their system.

“They’ll be a better program,” says the coach. “Coach (Anthony) Gonzales really focused on his younger programs last year and started a bunch of young kids. They had a sophomore starting at quarterback, so they’re going to have some experienced people back.

“Overall this year, that stretch against Valencia, Deming, Los Lunas and Alamo is key for us. Those are the games you need to have good showings in. We enjoy playing 6A teams because you’re going to get better doing that, and we’re going to try to go win everything, but you want to make sure you play well in those games that’re in your class. And one of the goals from that, of course, is to win district.”

Built & Bonded

When settling upon this year’s team motto, Henderson and his staff took their cues from the athletes themselves.

“They didn’t know they did, but the kids kind of chipped in on it,” says Henderson.

He says after discussing the particular strengths of this year’s team, and primarily its senior class, two stood above the rest.

“That’s their work ethic and their camaraderie,” Henderson says. “They’re workers. They contributed young to the varsity, they did the work and did well at the JV levels, and they’ve been good off season workers, as well. And then there’s just a real nice brotherhood with this group of seniors.

“I think they’ve done a good job of pulling the underclassmen into that, as well. It’s not just exclusive to them. And so we wanted to challenge them not to neglect those two strengths as they go along – they need to continue to build on those and not let them subside at any point.

“It’s an appropriate slogan for this group of guys.”

It’s Not Coach-Speak, It’s Just Business As Usual

“It doesn’t sound real exciting, but our goal really is to get better every week,” says Henderson.

While the phrase is as oft-repeated as “take it one game at a time,” there’s good reason for that – it truly is the ultimate goal of any team. Steady, consistent improvement is the foundation upon which a successful season is built and is what separates championship teams from those that fizzle come playoff time.

“We’re still going to be using these first games to evaluate kids,” Henderson says, “so if we can get better every week on offense, defense, and in our kicking game, it’ll give them a clearer picture of where they were last week compared to where they want to be next week.

“We’re going to be rotating a lot of bodies in and out of our offensive line, defensive line and secondary, the spots where we don’t have as much returning experience, and we’re going to be looking to see who gets the job done in live action. There’s guys that have looked good in the off season, in shorts, and while we’ve put on the pads, we’re still going against our buddies right now. So until we see how they respond in a game, we’re not going to know.”

The kicking game will, as always, also be a major question mark – and thus a major focus – as the early season progresses.

“You don’t scrimmage it, so it’s a pretty big goal to develop some consistency in the kicking game while you’re still in the evaluation phase,” Henderson says. “We want to make sure we get down to who we really feel best about having out there, and then work on getting after it from there.”

And while reading the cookbook, as it were, and gathering the ingredients are never the exciting part, the ‘Dogs know the end result will be all the sweeter for it.

“Our long-term goal is always going to be competing for a state championship,” says Henderson. “Our kids know that and developing young men of character are the two things our program wants to do year in and year out.

“If you get better every week, hopefully you get to achieve those goals. But we’re definitely ready to go get after it and see.”