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WELCOME HOME, AHS ALUMNI — A Bulldog avenger defends his city against the marauding Jaguars of Valencia in this drawing by Artesia High School senior art student Maegan Lemon. The Bulldogs will take on the Jaguars at 7 p.m. today at Bulldog Bowl in the 2017 Homecoming game. The superhero-themed Homecoming parade will begin at 4 p.m. today, running east along Main Street from Bulldog Boulevard. Yeso Elementary School’s enchilada dinner is being held from 4:30-6:30 p.m. in the Park Junior High School cafeteria, and tickets may be purchased at the door for $8 each. The AHS Homecoming Court will be crowned at 6:40 p.m. at Bulldog Bowl, and all former AHS band members are invited onto the field at halftime to join the Pride of the Pecos Valley in forming the “A” during the fight song. The Class of 1997 is also inviting all AHS alumni to its dance, set for 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Eddy County Fairgrounds. Donations will be accepted.

Come 4 p.m., Main Street in Artesia will be a solid line of orange and white, with Artesia High School’s colors adorning elaborate floats, festively-decorated pickup trucks, and wildly-cheering children.

Once the parade has made its way through the downtown district, the crowds will disperse, off to Park Junior High School, where once each year, cafeteria enchiladas become the community’s gourmet meal of choice.

By evening, Bulldog Bowl – already packed for every home game – will be bursting at the seams as alumni from far and wide return, for class reunions, to meet up with friends, or just to show their families what it was like to grow up in the football hotbed of New Mexico.

The court will be crowned, the band will be blaring – and that’s all before the main event.

While the minds of Artesia’s football fans, old and new, will be on tradition and nostalgia tonight, the Bulldog football team will be focused on one thing and one thing only: the Valencia Jaguars.

The boys in orange have put a frustrating loss to Hobbs last week behind them. They’ve taken the lessons learned and applied them to their game plan going forward. And they’re ready to get back on track in the 2017 Homecoming game.

“I think the boys have handled things well and moved on,” head coach Rex Henderson said Thursday. “They know what their end goal is and that everything is a process.

“Our goal is to be playing great football in district and by the playoffs, and these are the games that help you get there.”

The bout against the Eagles was by no means a blowout – of anything other than the bulbs on the scoreboard. Artesia was within a touchdown in the fourth quarter with opportunities to tie or take the lead, and Henderson says his athletes know where they went wrong and what could have gone better.

“I really think they could see the strides they made in that game,” said the coach. “If we’d played the whole game the way we played the second half, it could’ve different, but that’s where consistency and execution come in, and those kinds of games teach you that.”

Consistency is a primary short-term goal for the ‘Dogs in the early season, and their coaches will be looking to see more of it tonight.

“I think we’ve done a good job of moving the football for the first two games overall – we really haven’t punted a whole lot – but we haven’t always finished drives,” said Henderson. “So from an offensive standpoint, you want to see more of that. Our timing on the deep ball between the quarterback and receivers has been a focus this week.

“And defensively, it’s a shift from what we saw a week ago to this week. Getting lined up to double tights and multiple backs in the backfield wasn’t something we had to think about last week, but now we have to get back to stopping the run. The alignment is also going to be different this week than it’s been the last two, so that’s good for us, because it’s going to show us some things we’ll see down the road from other people that like to run the ball a bit more.”

Valencia, meanwhile, is finally growing into the system of head coach Collin Justiss.

Last year, in a 49-0 loss to Artesia at home, the young Jaguars struggled to establish any kind of rhythm, compiling 202 yards of total offense to the ‘Dogs’ 435.

While the familiar faces within the Jags’ offense have shifted a bit this season – former wide receivers Andres Lucero and Devon Martinez now compete as quarterback and running back respectively, and backs Isaiah Padilla and Scott Burgess are former members of Valencia’s offensive line – their returning experience has helped them thus far.

Valencia opened their 2017 campaign with a 34-12 victory over Alamogordo on the road and were competitive in a 28-14 home loss to Albuquerque High.

The Jaguars also return five starters from 2016 to their defensive unit amidst eight athletes who start on both sides of the ball.

“They’re improved,” said Henderson. “They’re all seniors and juniors now, so they’re getting older, and they run the system better. They won their first game convincingly and they battled well in their second, so I think they’re going to be a much better football team than what we’ve seen the last few years.

“I think they’re going to make us work as far as stopping the run, and it should be a good game for us.”