Published: 2:30 pm, Thu. Aug. 24th, 2017Updated: 2:27 pm
Mild breezes – the product of Thursday’s rain showers – blew down Main Street this morning, ruffling the Bulldog flags lining the downtown district into a corridor of proudly-waving orange.
Similarly-dressed citizens made their way between them, moving in and out of the local businesses, and the question on the lips of many as they paused to chat was the same: “What’s your prediction?”
The first day of any new football season in Artesia is always a festive affair, but for the second consecutive year, it now comes with an added jolt of excitement: It’s Eddy County War time, as well.
While some still wish there was time for a little more build-up, others have embraced the prospect of two of the state’s oldest rivals kicking off a new campaign against one another.
This year’s meeting at Ralph Bowyer Stadium in Carlsbad marks Battle No. 101, and that kind of history is not lost on the boys who’ll be donning the orange and blue.
“This game is a real big deal for the older people in both communities,” Artesia head coach Rex Henderson said Thursday. “It’s a real important game to them, so I think the kids know that and they respond to it, even if it’s not as big a deal to them.”
That’s not to say the ECW doesn’t light a fire under its participants. Any rivalry is going to do that. It’s just a bit different these days, as the meeting has moved away from the serious contention of the past and more into the realm of “friendly bragging rights.”
“In today’s world, these kids from Artesia and Carlsbad grow up playing ball together – baseball and travel teams and stuff like that – so they’re probably more friends than rivals,” Henderson said. “But to the communities, especially in Carlsbad, it’s a big deal, so they’ll definitely come out to play well because of that reality.”
Adding to the Cavemen’s “Beat Artesia” mentality tonight will also be the desire to start their 2017 season off on a positive note, thus erasing the memories of a 4-6 finish and a playoff miss in 2016. Head coach Gary Bradley’s boys in blue opened last year with a 30-14 loss to the Bulldogs at Bulldog Bowl.
That outing saw Artesia up 20-7 at the half, and while the two squads finished close in terms of offensive yardage, the ‘Dogs’ overall clean execution gave them the clear advantage throughout.
“I felt like a year ago, we ultimately executed more consistently than they did,” Henderson said. “Basic execution is big in a first game, because you really don’t know, to some extent, what the other team has been working on all offseason. Usually, people tend not to show some things in a scrimmage, so it’s not till the first game when you really start to see who a team wants to be for that year.”
The Cavemen will be returning a few familiar faces in 2017. Back Jaykan Willis, receiver Jordin Molina, and offensive linemen Thomas Duran, Jose Navarro and Nate Dorado all return, with Molina and Willis also back in the cornerback and safety positions respectively.
The pair are among six total Carlsbad players who start both ways. That number comprises all members of the team’s offensive skills set.
“They’ve got some good kids back, they’ve got some good skills kids, and then they’ve got some kids we haven’t really seen before,” said Henderson. “They’re going to look a whole lot better than they looked in their scrimmage, because that was two weeks ago.
“They’ve had two weeks to work on their mistakes, two weeks to put in new stuff, and two weeks to work specifically on us, if that’s what they chose to do with that time, so we’re kind of anxious to get out there and see.”
Apart from execution, which will be the primary determining factor, Henderson will also be looking for Artesia’s kicking game to rise to the occasion in their first real test.
“You don’t scrimmage that, you don’t run it live a whole lot, so it’s kind of a hidden aspect of the game until you kick off on that first Friday night,” said the coach. “Then you throw some guys out there and see what they can do.
“We’ve definitely worked to try to have an advantage, but you just don’t know until it’s live, so that’s going to be another big area Friday.”
As for the Bulldogs, the squad looked crisp, for the most part, in their scrimmage last week against Las Cruces Onate. Back under center for his second season will be senior quarterback Taylor Null – who was 17 of 30 for 219 yards and three touchdowns against the Cavemen a year ago – and he’ll have some comfortable targets from 2016 around him in running back Robert Fernandez, backs Tyler Greenwood and JR Bustamante, and receiver Joe Willingham.
On the defensive side, meanwhile, linebackers Miguel Martinez, Jorge Avitia and Blake Pruitt will once again be on duty, as will Eddie Pando on the line and Denver Williams in the secondary.
Outside of those athletes, however, the ‘Dogs will be using today’s game as a major evaluating tool for their new and untested athletes.
“We’re still trying to make sure some of our younger athletes even know where to be,” Henderson said. “We need to make sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time. We’re trying to advance and put on some new things, but mostly tonight, it’s going to be about refining what we’re already doing well.
“We’re still in the process of drilling a lot of those base things, and we’re still evaluating personnel in some of those spots. We may not know until the first quarter. You’re going to give all those guys a chance, but when you really get under fire with somebody who’s had a chance to watch you on film and decide how to attack you, that’s when you’re going to know more about what you’ve got.”