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A St. Pius Sartan discovers he may have to change his plans after an unexpected encounter with an Artesia Bulldog in this drawing by Artesia High School art student Maegan Lemon. The ‘Dogs will open their 2017 playoff run at 1 p.m. Saturday against the Sartans at Bulldog Bowl in a rematch of last year’s Class 5A state championship.

Some games you just want to forget.

The 2016 Class 5A state championship is one of those in the city of Artesia. In the cold, concrete confines of Nusenda Community Stadium in Albuquerque, the Bulldogs, to put it succinctly, had a bad day. The boys in orange got the title tilt off to an uncharacteristically slow start, and by the time they began to find their legs, it was simply too late.

It was St. Pius’ year – more specifically, Drew Ortiz’s year, the workhorse Sartan quarterback who accounted for 326 of Pius’ 334 total yards on the day.

Title No. 30 in the City of Champions would have to wait a little longer.

Now, the ‘Dogs are on that quest once again. And it’s fitting – and more than a little motivating – that the first step will take place at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bulldog Bowl against St. Pius.

The Bulldogs (8-2) have a District 4-AAAAA championship, a season’s worth of experience against a slew of tough competition, and two straight weeks of preparation in hand going into Saturday’s Class 5A state quarterfinal. And while these aren’t the same Sartans they faced a year ago, they’re taking nothing lightly and nothing for granted.

“They’ll still look familiar to people that went to the game last year,” head coach Rex Henderson said Thursday. “They’re doing a lot of the same things. They’ve got a new coach, but kind of like us, they didn’t really change a lot. The schemes are the same, and they’ve found a new quarterback to fill that spot who’s a really good athlete.”

Six-foot, 175-pound sophomore Diego Pavia is no Ortiz – few are – but showed the state what he could do in last week’s first-round game against Lovington.

Pavia carried in five of Pius’ six touchdowns and orchestrated an improbable comeback for the Sartans, who came from 21 points down in the second quarter to edge the Wildcats 42-35.

“They use him in a lot of the same ways they did Ortiz,” Henderson said. “He gets out of the pocket scrambling, they have some designed runs, and then he’s going to try to throw the ball to the guys he has out there in the spread.”

While there aren’t as many potent weapons in St. Pius’ receiving arsenal as there were in 2016, the Sartans notably return senior back Ryan McGaha, who had eight catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns against the ‘Dogs a year ago.

“They had four or five guys last year that they could throw the ball to at any time, and you couldn’t let any of them loose,” said Henderson. “You don’t see quite that same skill level all the way across this year, but they have a couple of guys (McGaha and Jacob McCoy) who are very, very consistent catching the ball and do a good job with it when they get it.

“They still don’t have too strong a running game, other than from their quarterback, which is kind of the same as a year ago. They’re a pretty similar team, just with a lot younger guys. But you can see the development with that quarterback over the course of the season.”

The Orange Crush will need to be ready to contain Pavia, as well as defend the pass, something they settled back into Nov. 3 against Lovington after several weeks of bouts with teams reluctant to take to the air.

“It’s been good for us to be working on some spread components defensively and getting back to that, because we didn’t see it for so long,” said Henderson. “We really only saw it a couple of times throughout the regular season. Most of our schedule is run teams, so it’s been nice for our defense to get back to working on those ideas and concepts.”

Henderson says the similarities between Lovington and St. Pius’ offenses essentially amounted to three weeks of prep work for Saturday’s game, something that served the Crush well.

“The schemes that Lovington runs are amazingly similar to Pius’, so for three weeks through the open date, we were able to prepare,” said the coach. “It’s not very often you’re preparing for two teams with the same plays, more or less, so that was nice and allowed us to do a lot of things.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress in regards to the pass rush and defending the pass, and those types of things we have to do to be able to compete in the playoffs.”

The Bulldog offense, meanwhile, has settled into a comfortable groove over the second half of their season, hanging 197 points on their last four opponents, a per-game average of 49.
Senior quarterback Taylor Null and his receivers are clearly in sync, and senior and junior RBs Robert Fernandez and Jagger Donaghe have been keeping opposing defenses honest.

“I feel like we’ve made some strides in our stunt pick-ups and things we have to do that are different with the type of pressure these teams like to bring, and I think we’ve made strides in a lot of areas offensively over the second half of the season,” said Henderson. “Defensively, Pius likes man coverage, trying to stop the run and take that component out of your game, so I’m sure we’ll see something pretty similar to what we did a year ago from them.

“They’re not quite as big up front as they were last year, but they’ve still got pretty good overall speed, and we’ll need to be ready to handle that.”

With the playoff atmosphere Bulldog Bowl always brings and their sights set on continuing the crisp execution that saw them dominate their way through district, the ‘Dogs are focused on making tomorrow’s rematch of the 5A state game one they’ll be glad to remember.

“They’re excited about this game,” Henderson said. “They’re excited to play them again, and just excited in general to get going in the playoffs.”