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Artesia defeats Belen in 5A title game at Bulldog Bowl

The 2017 Bulldogs pose with their trophy, banner and bracket following Saturday’s game. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

As the final notes of the Artesia High School alma mater rang out Saturday at Bulldog Bowl and the senior members of the 2017 AHS football team hoisted their helmets aloft for the final time, Denver Williams couldn’t hold back the tears.

To the safety’s right, quarterback Taylor Null gazed up at the thousands of fans pointing back at the newly-crowned Class 5A state champions, a smile playing at his lips.

The Bulldogs had just made history on their venerable home field. They did it in decisive fashion against previously unbeaten Belen, 48-14. They did it together, as brothers.

“It was just kind of like… finally,” Null said. “We finally got it.”

“This has been a big part of my life, and I know it’s made me a better person,” said Williams. “I’m sad it’s over. But I’m also excited. Especially after last year, coming off that loss, it feels good to come out here and get this one.”

Taylor Null spies an open receiver during the first quarter of Saturday’s Class 5A State Championship game at Bulldog Bowl. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Bulldog football program’s record 30th state title may have been delayed a bit in 2016, but Saturday, it came home, at home. The blue trophy didn’t have far to travel… up the championship ramp and into the trophy room housing 29 others, the first of which was won in 1957, exactly 60 years ago.

At halftime, players and coaches from past AHS championship teams were invited onto the field as the Pride of the Pecos Valley played “Onward Bulldogs.” It was a large crowd, and with at least one member of that ’57 squad present, it was estimated every one of those 29 teams was represented.

The tradition was strong at Bulldog Bowl, and with overall dominant performances in all phases of the game, the 2017 ‘Dogs made sure it lives on.

“It’s been a big deal for them to do this,” head coach Rex Henderson said. “I think really for the ones that played a year ago, it was an even bigger deal for them to finish well.

“It’s been the goal, and so to see it happen is pretty special for this group.”

Denver Williams heads upfield after intercepting a Belen pass in the fourth quarter. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Bulldogs were playing no pushover in the second-ranked Eagles. Junior running back Diego Casillas brought his team to the title tilt, and there was little question he’d have yards to show for it. But while the Orange Crush defense bent a bit at isolated points in the game, it did not break, holding a team averaging 468 yards and 40 points per game to 298 and 14 respectively.

The Big Orange offense sputtered slightly out of the gate, but after settling in, it capped six of its last seven drives of the game with touchdowns.

“We wanted to jump on them quick, and we didn’t really get to do that,” said Null. “But we responded really well to what they had and made some really good adjustments. Coach Henderson, the O-line, running backs, receivers… everybody did a great job of responding.”

“After that first drive, we did pretty good,” said senior running back Robert Fernandez. “We just had to get those state jitters out, but after that, we started rolling.”

Belen wasted no time introducing Casillas in the contest, putting the ball in the hands of their workhorse 13 times for 58 yards amidst a clock-annihilating, 17-play drive. By the time Casillas barreled over the goal line from the two, just 3:57 remained in the first quarter.

That’s typically more than a sufficient amount of time for Artesia’s offense to produce, but hindered by a pair of sacks, the ‘Dogs were forced to punt away their inaugural possession. The Crush stepped up to end the Eagles’ next drive in kind, however, and as the second quarter began, so did the Bulldogs.

Junior receiver Jacob Orona displays the helmet decals the Bulldogs wore during Saturday’s state game in honor of his nephew, Cy Palmer. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

A 14-yard pass from Null to AJ Estrada placed Artesia near midfield, and with JR Bustamante clearly in the mood to lock horns with the Belen D, Null let him do just that, firing off four quick, consecutive passes to the junior to march the ‘Dogs from their own 40 to the Eagle 11.

Two plays later, Null found Chaney Hardt in the end zone to tie the game at 7-all with 8:24 to go in the half.

“We just did what we were supposed to do and executed,” Hardt said of the series.

Artesia’s defense did the same as the ball went back to Belen, nabbing quarterback Zach Halterman near the line of scrimmage on first down, then twice stopping Casillas to force the three and out.

“There’s some things we should’ve done better today, especially in that first drive,” said senior linebacker Miguel Martinez. “I think there was a little bit of nerves going on just because it was the state game, but after that, everyone was focused and ready to go.”

The ‘Dogs started their next drive from their own 11 but covered ground quickly, earning first downs on 11-, 13- and 15-yard runs by junior RB Jagger Donaghe, and a 20-yard pass from Null to Hardt.

With the ball at the Eagle 12, Null appeared briefly harried in the backfield but eluded a pair of defenders, tucked, and ran, legging out the TD to put Artesia on top 14-7.

Joe Willingham hauls in a 63-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Null. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

A sack of Halterman by junior backer Colin Flood pushed Belen from their own 20 to the 12 on the ensuing possession, prompting a pass. Halterman connected with Luis Barajas, but as the receiver turned, Williams was all over him, ripping the ball away and recovering the fumble to return the ball to Artesia in the red zone.

And after two short passes brought about third and eight from the 12, Null called his own number once again, charging over the goal line and taking a defender along for the ride in the final four yards to give the Bulldogs a 21-7 halftime lead.

“We started off a little bit slow, but I think we really picked it up after that and played to the level that we can,” said Williams.

“We were a little shaky at first, I’m not gonna lie,” said senior Tyler Garthwaite, whose O-line opened big holes for Null on his second-quarter TD runs. “We were pretty jittery and we let them through some, but as the game progressed, coach just told us, ‘Y’all have got to communicate better,’ and we went out there and did it, and were able to give everybody good protection throughout the rest of the game.”

A kick return to midfield by Estrada got things started in the second half, and with Null sprinkling passes around, Artesia needed just five plays to reach first and goal at the nine. A short toss to Fernandez for two made that the seven, and from there, Fernandez let his feet do the talking, making it 27-7 following the failed conversion.

Aaron Flores (84) and Miguel Martinez (47) work together to take down Belen running back Diego Casillas. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Casillas was able to break a pair of big runs – 33 and 22 yards – in the Eagles’ first series of the half, and Belen converted twice on third down en route to their second score, a 10-yard scamper by the RB with 4:32 to go in the third.

When the ‘Dogs followed by turning it over on downs at the 50, the healthy Belen contingent was back on its feet and in full voice. Artesia needed a momentum-killer. And as was the case throughout the playoffs, Williams was only too happy to oblige.

The senior forced the ball out of the hands of Casillas at the end of another long run and into those of corner Camren Saxon. And the offense didn’t squander the gift, with Null unleashing a game-changer of his own: a 63-yard bomb to a wide-open Joe Willingham to put Artesia up 34-14 as the fourth quarter began.

“It’s a little scary,” Willingham said, laughing, of the sight of a high pass sailing in from afar. “But then the adrenaline just spiked, and when I caught it… oh yeah, there’s nothing like it. It’s the best feeling ever.”

He’d soon have the chance to experience it again, courtesy of who else but Williams.

A 45-yard run by Casillas had just brought about first and 10 at the Bulldog 17, but rather than stay grounded, the Eagles opted to try a pass. Williams was there to make them pay with his fifth pick of the playoffs.

Chaney Hardt bursts through the Eagle defense for extra yards. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

A subsequent personal foul on Belen gave Artesia the start at their own 40, and following a trio of Fernandez runs and one by Bustamante, Null let fly to his 6’5” target Willingham once more, who made the over-the-shoulder grab in the end zone to effectively ice the game, 41-14.

The Crush forced fourth and seven in the Eagles’ next series, and with no choice but to go for it, Halterman’s pass was intercepted by senior linebacker Jorge Avitia.

Two Null passes – to Hardt and Tyler Greenwood – and a pair of Donaghe runs gave the Bulldogs first and goal with just under two minutes to play. And with the ball at the nine, an unfamiliar number stealthily slipped into the Artesia offense’s ranks: the 84 of senior defensive lineman Aaron Flores.

Before Belen could register his presence, the ball was in his hands for the final touchdown catch of the season.

“I was a receiver my sophomore year,” Flores laughed. “It felt great to get that catch.”

Winning state?

“Well, that’s even better,” Flores grinned.

Aaron Flores heads into the end zone with the final touchdown reception of the season. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“It’s great,” agreed Martinez. “One of the best feelings there is.”

“It feels good,” said Hardt. “I’m proud of my teammates and the job they did today.”

The Bulldogs finished with 390 total yards of offense on the day, 99 rushing – led by Fernandez (9-58) and Donaghe (5-32) – and 291 passing, with Null going a near-perfect 24 of 27 with three touchdowns.

Willingham was 3-103 receiving, followed by Bustamante (6-62), Hardt (6-56), Estrada (4-37) and Greenwood (3-21).

“We were really, really pleased with how our guys played today,” said Henderson. “We felt really good about what we were able to get done.

“Offensively, after that first drive, we moved the ball well and had the type of execution we wanted to see. Offense, defense, the kicking game… everybody has executed well for the whole back half of the season, and that’s what you want in a state championship game.”

“I think we did a good job of not getting deep-ball hungry, big-play hungry,” said Null. “We just took what they gave us, moved the ball up the field in chunks, and got it in the end zone.”

In addition to holding Belen under 300 yards, the Crush forced four turnovers on the day.

“We may have not been able to completely stop them, but to hold a really good offense to 14 points is a really great accomplishment for our defense and a good way for them to finish up a solid year,” Henderson said.

“We played outstanding,” said Flores. “This defense is something else… I love this defense.”

“We knew Belen was a good team, but we were confident in each other, and we knew we could get it done,” said Williams.

“Let’s fight till the end,” Martinez said of the defenders’ mindset after the opening drive. “Till that last whistle blows, let’s just fight.”

Jorge Avitia bounds out of the pile with an interception in the fourth quarter Saturday. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Saturday’s championship had national implications, as well. With it, Artesia takes sole possession of third place on the National Federation of State High Schools Association’s all-time list of most titles won – once again, behind two schools who’ve been counting since the early 1900s.

“We knew Belen was going to be tough, but in our heart, we had it that we were going to win, and I think having a close bond like we talked about Thursday is just what kept us in there,” said Garthwaite. “We kept driving and driving and driving until they couldn’t catch up.”

“It was a little emotional there at the end, but we just had to hold it back long enough to finish,” said Martinez.

The Bulldogs will graduate a large total of 30 seniors in 2018, 32 counting its managers.

“This is sure a good group of guys,” said Henderson. “We had really good leadership out of our seniors this year. They’ll be missed, but they’ve left their mark on the program.

“They’ll be fun to watch in other sports as they move on this year.”

They’ll move on knowing that 30th orange football on the face of the press box at Bulldog Bowl is theirs, a milestone for the program and a precious memory for each individual player, as well as the thousands of fans on hand to witness it.

Senior members of the Bulldog football team rush forward to claim the blue trophy from Artesia Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Crit Caton. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“We really appreciate everybody who came out and watched the game,” Henderson said. “It was a really good atmosphere for high-school football at the Bowl. It was standing room only, with people watching around the rails. They were loud and involved, and that means a lot to these kids.”

As for the seniors, much was going through their minds as the final seconds of the 2017 season ticked away.

“I just wanted it to tick down faster,” said Willingham. “I couldn’t wait for it to hit zero.”

“I was happy, emotional, everything,” said Flores. “It didn’t seem real to me… I didn’t start crying till after I touched that trophy.”

“It feels real good getting to end on such a high note with all my brothers that I’ve gotten to play next to throughout the years,” Fernandez said. “It’s been a real honor to be a Bulldog, and I’m glad I left a legacy here.”

“I was thinking, ‘Herff Jones, baby,’” laughed Garthwaite. “This team came so far from the beginning to here, and I couldn’t ask for a better team to play with. To end it like this made everything feel so much better.”

“It’s really indescribable,” said Null. “It’s just a great way to end Bulldog football for me.”

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    The Bulldogs celebrate around the state championship trophy. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

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    Colin Flood takes down Eagle quarterback Zach Halterman for a loss of eight. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

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    Jagger Donaghe darts away from a pair of Belen defenders. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

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    Robert Fernandez takes the handoff from Taylor Null. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)