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Cesar Leyva attempts a shot on goal during the first half Saturday at The Mack. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

It wasn’t quite the dominant performance the Bulldogs gave in their district-opening victory earlier in the week against Goddard, but despite the somewhat slow start, the boys in orange ultimately accomplished their aim: D4 win No. 2 is in the books.

The majority of Saturday’s contest – originally slated to take place in Lovington but moved to the Mack Chase Athletic Complex after the Wildcats’ field was deemed too wet to accommodate the game – played out around midfield. The ‘Dogs kept the ‘Cats from creating any solid looks on goal, but at the same time, they struggled a bit to create opportunities of their own.

“There were times tonight where it wasn’t as tidy as it needed to be,” head coach Phillip Jowers said. “We have to clean it up a little bit and continue to make those simple passes on the ground, and basically communicate better.

“We have to move the ball around and possess it a little more than what we did against Lovington.”

Artesia outshot the Wildcats 5-2 in the opening 40 minutes but were unable to find the back of the net until the 23rd minute, when Carlos Martinez finally broke the seal on a shot out of a scrum in front of the net.

That 1-0 score would stand at the half, and although the ‘Cats were able to do more offensively in the second, the Bulldogs made their only two attempts count.

In between, however, came a defensive play that finally gave Artesia that spark they’d be missing.

Just 2:43 into the half, Lovington was awarded a penalty kick. As soccer fans know, such shots are rarely thwarted; they’re just too close, and the shooter has all the advantage.

But as the ball left the Wildcat’s foot, Artesia keeper Aaron Natera saw the angle and went to the ground, blocking the ball off to the side, where it was collected and cleared by the defense.

“At that point, it was still just 1-0, and in my head, I said, ‘If they make it, I’m going to let the team down; if I save it, we’ll win.’”

What did he say in his head afterward?

“‘I can’t believe I saved that,’” Natera laughed. “But that just pumped everyone up and gave us some energy.”

Around seven minutes later, John “Bobo” Baca logged the ‘Dogs’ first insurance goal, and the breathing room proved beneficial as the Bulldogs continued to battle the tenacious Wildcats.

“Our mentality was that we couldn’t go into this game thinking we already had it won just because Goddard beat them,” junior striker Cooper Flores said. “We had to go in thinking we were playing Albuquerque Academy and giving it our all.”

Artesia was able to fend off Lovington’s final attempts at getting on the board, with under two minutes left to play, Jesus “Turtle” Valdez tacked one on for good measure to round out the final, 3-0.

“I think we fought throughout the whole game,” said Natera. “We played as a team, and that’s what made us win.”

“We played hard,” agreed Flores. “We always tend to do good when we strike first, and whenever we did that, it got our intensity up and we just kept fighting till the end.”

The win bumps Artesia’s record to 8-7-1 on the year, 2-0 in district play, as they prepare to host their toughest challenge of the first round Tuesday against Roswell High at The Mack.

“It’s nice to have a mature team that can handle tactical changes throughout the game, and we’ll need that Tuesday against Roswell,” said Jowers. “I have a lot of respect for James Vernon over at Roswell and the program he’s built, and they’re not anybody to take lightly.

“The biggest thing about this team right now is that they put a lot of hard work in over the summertime to get where they are now, and that works out well because we’re not having to focus on conditioning and stuff at this point. We can basically work on tactics and game play and getting where we need to be. We just need to stay hungry and humble, and take every game one at a time like we’ve been doing all season.”

Should the Bulldogs accomplish that, they like their chances against the perennially powerful Coyotes.

“We need to play really hard against Roswell because they’re our biggest competition in district right now,” said Natera, “We have to play our A game, and if we can do that, I have a really, really good feeling we’re going to win district.”

“We’re doing good as a team right now,” said Flores. “We’re communicating and working together, and I feel like our chemistry through the game is really good.

“We just need to keep up the good work, practice hard, stay focused, and have our mind set.”