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An Artesia Bulldog cleans his teeth with a feather whilst enjoying a dinner of roast Eagle in this drawing by Artesia High School graduate Maegan Lemon. The ‘Dogs will be looking to secure their first win of the season at 7 p.m. today at Bulldog Bowl against Belen.

Old rivalries are part of what makes high-school football fun.

The series that date back to the 1920s and ‘30s. The county war, the Victory Bell, the grudges that naturally accompany games played annually against communities in proximity within the football hotbed of Southeast New Mexico.

But particularly when the majority of those battles are of the inter-classification variety, fun is really all they are. For the Bulldogs in particular, they’re a chance to test themselves against larger teams for whom beating Artesia is a highlight of the entire year.

The boys in orange aren’t dwelling on the results of the last two weeks. To do so would be counterproductive to the greater goal: a Class 5A state championship. And when they take the field today at Bulldog Bowl against their first 5A opponent of the season, the only thought given to their first two outings will be to ensure the mistakes made are eliminated as they head into the meat of their regular-season slate.

“We’re still looking to establish consistency in all three phases of the game,” head coach Rex Henderson said Thursday. “We’re doing some really good things right now on offense and defense, and even in the kicking game, but we’re following up still with some early-season inconsistencies. So as we move forward, that’s got to get better every week.”

There’s no question the ‘Dogs put a better foot forward last week in Hobbs than in their opening performance versus Carlsbad. For three quarters of football, they were firmly in control of the contest, leading 37-14 heading into the fourth.

But there, things simply fell apart. Remaining calm under fire, therefore, is something Henderson and his staff will be looking for against Belen.

“We definitely saw some strides last week as coaches, and some things that we looked a lot better in than we did the first week,” said the coach. “That needs to continue this week. Consistency really is the biggest thing. We talked about it last week, and it improved, but it didn’t come all the way to where it needs to be.”

Today’s contest carries added interest in the state as a rematch of the 2017 5A state title game, which the Bulldogs took by a final of 48-14 at the Bowl.

While both teams bring back some key starters from last year’s rosters, the Eagles boast the most prolific returner in terms of offensive yardage in 6’1”, 210-pound senior running back Diego Casillas.
Casillas headed into the teams’ 2017 meeting averaging 232 rushing yards per game. The sheer number of times the ball is placed in the RB’s hands over the course of a game dictate he’s going to get his share, and as a junior, he was 32-242 against the Bulldogs with both of Belen’s touchdowns on the day.

In terms of containment, however, the Orange Crush defense did an admirable job. Casillas’ scores were from two and 10 yards out, with Artesia preventing the big play for the bulk of the outing.

“Defensively, we’re going to be back o a lot of the same ideas as when we played Carlsbad: getting lined up right, changing sets, being physical at the point of the attack, and being able to give Belen some trouble with establishing their running game,” Henderson said. “They’ve got the big back again, and he’s off to a good start this year.

“He’s not quite on his pace from a year ago – he’s only averaging about 170 so far instead of 200 – but he’s off to a good start, and that’s what’s going to be important on our end: Making sure that we win in the trenches so that we can maybe meet him behind the line instead of in front of it.”

Joining Casillas as a returning starter will be 6’4”, 230-pound senior receiver Alexes Aguilar. Both athletes, along with a pair of Eagle offensive linemen, also start both ways.

“They’ve got good athletes across the board, but so far, everything’s really gone through Casillas and Aguilar,” said Henderson, “both offensively and defensively. They’re kind of the guys making a difference. The other guys are playing well enough around them, but they stood out a year ago as juniors, and they’re still standing out.”

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will have a different look on offense tonight as junior quarterback Clay Houghtaling takes the helm in place of injured starter Trent Taylor.

Houghtaling was in for one series last week against Hobbs, showing his physicality as a mobile quarterback with two long runs before the drive stalled on a missed field-goal attempt.

“Offensively in particular, we need to make sure tonight that we’re protecting the quarterback and opening up holes for the running game,” Henderson said. “We have to do a better job of that, and that goes a long way toward that consistency we’re looking for.”

As a whole, the Bulldogs will be looking to continue shoring up their game, which includes maintaining focus and intensity in the face of adversity.

“This is a good chance to see one of the top teams in our class, and not just a team we saw in the state game a year ago but a team that’s really kind of established itself as a consistent playoff contender,” said Henderson. “They have, for a number of years now, been able to at least be a semifinal team, so it’s going to be good for us to get to see somebody of that caliber this early in the season.”