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An Artesia Bulldog renders a Lovington Wildcat subdued in this drawing by Artesia High School senior art student Maegan Lemon. The ‘Dogs will host the ‘Cats at 7 p.m. today at Bulldog Bowl in their regular-season finale with a District 4-AAAAA championship on the line.

There’s a reason people often call district play “the second season.”

It marks the start of the games that really count. The ones that can determine where – and if – you land in the playoffs; a tune-up for November, when things shift from improving for next week to there’ll be no next week if you don’t.

How a team performs in district can have a significant impact on their confidence – both physically and mentally – as state begins. And should the Bulldogs close out their D4 schedule today at Bulldog Bowl the way they began it, their playoff mindset should be strong indeed.

Coming off of decisive 42-7 and 56-12 victories over Roswell High and Goddard respectively, the ‘Dogs (7-2) will host the Wildcats of Lovington (5-4) in their regular-season finale, and Artesia is intent on keeping their performance level at a high.

“We’ve played really well, I feel like, for the past month or so, and what we’ve talked about that entire time is making sure we get better every week,” head coach Rex Henderson said Thursday. “Execution is going to be key.”

For the past two seasons, Lovington has been in the midst of rebuilding its program under coach Anthony Gonzales. The Wildcats were a young and very green squad in their 2016 meeting with the ‘Dogs, which Artesia ended 55-3 with 11 minutes still left in the game.

And while Lovington returns only a trio of offensive starters from that bout – with more youth sprinkled around on both sides of the ball – they’ve shown growth, most particularly by way of a 35-28 district win over Goddard Oct. 20 in Lovington.

“They’ve improved quite a bit in their second year with Coach Gonzales,” said Henderson. “He seems to be getting things pointed in the right direction there. They focused a lot last year on their younger levels, and it would appear to be paying off.

“They’re still starting a lot of young athletes, but you can see the continued improvement. They’ve beaten the teams they needed to beat this year, and they’ve played close games with some good teams, so that’s definitely a sign of progress.”

The ‘Cats kicked off their 2017 campaign with a 68-54 shootout win over Chaparral, then put up more big offensive numbers Sept. 8 in a 60-36 win over Ruidoso after falling in Week Two to Portales, 42-21.

Lovington was able to put points on the board versus Hobbs (59-27) and were just edged Sept. 22 by St. Pius (14-7) before winning their next three against Capital (23-13), Santa Teresa (25-18) and Goddard. They dropped to 1-1 in district last week with a 48-12 loss to Roswell.

Returning at running back this season for the Wildcats is senior Isaiah Hinson, who saw limited carries last year against Artesia. Lovington has a new field general in sophomore Casey Perez, who will undoubtedly be looking skyward more than the ‘Cats did in 2016, when they posted just six aerial yards.

“They have more skill kids this year, and they look like what you kind of expect from Lovington’s skill kids,” Henderson said. “They look athletic, and they catch the ball and run well. They’ve got their offensive coordinator back from when Lovington was pretty good in the lower class, and he’s done a good job for them.

“They’re spreading the field and they’re throwing the ball a lot, but they still run the ball well, too, and have some good athletes alternating in at running back. Defensively, they like to be pretty aggressive and get after you, so they’re going to give us some different looks than we’ve seen in recent weeks, which will be good for us.”

The Bulldog defense was stellar against the run-oriented offenses of Roswell and Goddard over the past two weeks and will be looking tonight to prove they can continue that trend when the pass is more frequently incorporated. The offense, meanwhile, will aim to remain efficient and unrelenting.

“Defensively, we’re definitely going to have an adjustment and a change from what we’ve been doing,” said Henderson. “Lovington is closer to balanced than Roswell or Goddard, but they do throw the ball more than they run it and have been able to move the ball against some people.

“Offensively, we have to make sure we’re sound in our pass protection to be ready to handle any pressure they may decide to bring.”

With the locking up of a District 4-AAAAA title also on the line tonight, focus shouldn’t be a problem for the boys in orange.

“If we can continue to execute as well as we have been against some things we haven’t seen the last few weeks but did earlier in the year, it’ll be a good chance to see how much we’ve improved in some areas,” said Henderson. “We just have to be consistent in our execution, and we have to do the little things well.

“If we can do that, I think we should be okay.”