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An Artesia Bulldog initiates a Storm bust in this drawing by Artesia High School senior art student Maegan Lemon. The ‘Dogs head north today for their first meeting with Cleveland on their home turf in Rio Rancho. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.

Last year’s inaugural clash between Artesia and Cleveland was, by all accounts, a great high school football game.

The Bulldogs were airing it out. The Storm were tearing up the turf. And although Cleveland was able to pull away in the end for a 14-point win, 42-28, the ‘Dogs were within seven with a chance to tie with six minutes remaining in the game.

But Artesia has never been much for moral victories, and the Bulldogs weren’t content with the assessment they’d “put up a good fight” against what was then Class 6A’s second-ranked team. Cleveland holds the No. 4 spot in that class this year. And the Bulldogs will head to Rio Rancho today once again entirely unconcerned with that statistic.

They’re simply looking for another win.

“Cleveland is pretty good again,” head coach Rex Henderson said Thursday. “They’re 3-1, they beat a good Las Cruces team and a pretty good Centennial team, so they’ve done some things well to start the season.”

The Storm return only five players from their 2016 starting lineup – four on offense and one on defense. Notably gone is dynamic running back Niko Papadopoulos, who scored all six of the Storm’s touchdowns against Artesia and whose name was called so many times it nearly became a tongue-twister for Bulldog Bowl PA announcer Danny Parker.

But at a school the size of Cleveland, there are no rebuilding years. The athletes are once again big, fast, talented, and capable of quickly making teams pay for any and every mistake.

“The thing you know about Cleveland is that in addition to being athletic, they’re well-coached,” Henderson said. “It’s a good group of coaches they have there, and they’re the type of people you have to make sure you’re sound in your preparation against, because they’re going to make you work hard to win.

“And that’s why you play these games – it’s going to make us better by having to prepare at that level.”

One of the Storm’s handful of returning players is quarterback Angelo Trujillo, who passed for 137 yards versus the ‘Dogs in 2016. Trujillo told the Albuquerque Journal last week he was looking forward to crossing metaphorical swords with Artesia’s senior QB, Taylor Null.

“Taylor is a great quarterback,” Trujillo said. “It’s gonna be fun.”

Returning to the field last Friday for the first time since Aug. 31 after suffering a concussion in Cleveland’s 30-7 loss to La Cueva, Trujillo went 18 for 28 for 301 yards and four touchdown passes in the Storm’s 42-12 victory over Centennial.

On the receiving end of those TD passes were Isaac Torres (48 yards), Jacob Esquibel (six and five yards), and Justin Ainsworth (20 yards).

Running back Isaac Torres also tilts the scale turfward, however, in an overall balanced offense. The senior exceeded 200 yards rushing in Cleveland’s 28-21 win over Las Cruces High Sept. 9. He carried the ball for one TD versus Centennial. The Storm’s sixth score came via an 81-yard fumble return.

As for the Bulldogs, they’ll be looking to build on back-to-back dominant performances against Valencia and Deming that saw the team make big strides toward its consistency goals in all three phases of the game.

Null has been connecting well of late with a wide variety of receivers, and RB Robert Fernandez will no doubt be focused on vastly improving the ‘Dogs’ running game against Cleveland; Artesia managed just two ground yards versus the Storm last season.

“I think we’ve developed a little more consistency on offense, and we’ve got to continue to do that,” said Henderson. “In a game like this, you’ve gotta make sure you’re consistent moving the football and consistent on scoring in the red zone.

“Defensively, we have to be sound in our alignment, because they’re going to throw a lot of different sets at us that we haven’t seen yet. They’re the kind of team that’ll keep trying sets until they find one that makes you wrong, so we’ve got to make sure we’re sound in our adjustments and that we’re doing that on the move. We’ve also been a lot more pleased with our kicking game the last few weeks, but going against better people, we need to continue to be as consistent in our execution in that area as we have been.”

Today’s trip will mark Artesia’s first to Cleveland’s home digs and the squad’s second long road trip in as many weeks, with yet another looming next Friday to Los Lunas. Those factors combined with the skill of their opponent are exactly the type of prep work the ‘Dogs need to prepare them for the swiftly-approaching second season.

“This should be a good opportunity for us to see where we’re at about mid-season and what we’re able to do against one of the better 6A programs in the state,” said Henderson.