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An Artesia Bulldog prepares to do battle with a Ruidoso Warrior in this drawing by Artesia High School graduate Maegan Lemon. The ‘Dogs will take on the Warriors for the first time since 2001 at 7 p.m. today at Bulldog Bowl in their final pre-district game of the season. Artesia’s open date will be Oct. 12, and the team will resume play Oct. 19 against Roswell High in their District 4-AAAAA opener.

Last week in Lovington, the Bulldog football team was finally able to put together the sort of steady effort their coaches had been seeking since Aug. 24.

The inconvenient lapses that had marked their previous five outings – leaving the door open for their regular-season 6A opponents to either come back or surge ahead for wins – were next to nil. Their focus was sharper, their play was crisper, and they were able to not only establish and maintain a rhythm against a solid Wildcat team.

Now, as they prepare to close out their 2018 pre-district slate today against Ruidoso at Bulldog Bowl, head coach Rex Henderson and Co. hope to see their athletes continue that trend, sanding the edges before they head into their open date next week.

“I think just making sure we stay sharp on the little things, the fundamentals, is a major focus this week,” Henderson said Thursday.

Tonight’s matchup presents a perfect opportunity for the ‘Dogs to test themselves against a program with which they’re largely unfamiliar, creating something of a playoff feel.

The defending Class 4A state champion Warriors are currently 5-1 on the season. They opened their ’18 campaign with a trio of consecutive wins over Crownpoint (54-0), Hatch Valley (28-13) and Alamogordo (57-54) before coming up short in a rematch of last year’s 4A state game with Las Vegas Robertson, 40-34 in overtime.

Ruidoso bounced back, however, with close victories over Tularosa (14-7) and Silver (28-21).
The Warriors present a balanced attack offensively, with juniors Aiden Gast and Gage Guardiola trading quarterback duties.

Against Robertson Sept. 14, Gast was seven of 10 for 135 yards passing and one touchdown, while Guardiola went 10 of 19 for 132 yards and two TDs. On the receiving end of seven of those passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns was junior Layson Powell, while fellow receiver Gabriel Dorame caught six for 58 yards and a score.

On the ground, running back Leo Mora was 16-54 with a touchdown, Powell 3-46 with a TD.

“(Powell) and (Dorame) are kind of the two playmakers on their offense,” Henderson said. “They’re more receiver types, but I think they can run with the ball and so some other things, as well. They’re both good athletes. They have good speed and move well.

“Ruidoso is playing a lot of young kids, but they’re good-looking kids. There are quite a few sophomores out there on the field that they’re depending on, and they even have a couple of freshmen they mix in there, one on each side of the ball. So they use everybody, but they’re 5-1. They’ve been able to get some experience for those kids while winning some games, and that’s pretty impressive.”

Ruidoso’s 2017 state title was the program’s second in four years, and the team currently stands third in the class in the New Mexico Overtime Sports Center coaches’ poll, fourth on MaxPreps.

“I’m anxious to see how they play,” said Henderson. “Coach (Kief) Johnson’s got a good program going there, and they’re doing a good job of being competitive at the 4A level. Last year, I think, really shows you what they’re capable of, because they weren’t a team projected to go win state. But they got better every week and ended up in the state game, and won it with a group that wouldn’t maybe have been predicted to do that.”

Henderson says the Bulldogs will need to be ready to counter a variety of offensive looks from the boys in blue, while the Artesia offense will have a chance to fine-tune their aerial assault.

“They like to bring pressure, and I think that’s going to give us a chance to look at our vertical passing game and our pass protection,” said the coach. “Both of those areas will be good focuses for us this week.

“Defensively, they present a more balanced offensive attack – truly a 50/50 attack – so that gives you the opportunity to really see if you can play disciplined football, read keys, adjust to sets. They like to use an odd set here and there to try to throw you off or get you out of position so they can make a big play, and they’ve done that successfully against a lot of people this year. So we have to make sure we’re sound in our alignments.”

And while the number of flags will no doubt be fewer automatically than they were last week in Lovington, Henderson says the coaching staff will also be looking for the ‘Dogs to cut down on their number of mental-error-variety penalties.

Overall, tonight’s bout between the defending 4A and 5A champs offers a good pre-open-date tune-up with a dash of nostalgia: Artesia and Ruidoso haven’t met on the grid since 2001. Henderson hopes to see the ‘Dogs take advantage by closing out the “first season” with their best game to date, top to bottom.

“I’d like us to put together a complete game,” said the coach. “Last week, I felt like we finally hit the consistency level we wanted to, but as far as putting together a full effort, where we’re real sharp in all three phases, we don’t have the mental errors with penalties, and we don’t lose our composure in spots, I don’t know that we’ve done that yet.

“We had a big, big jump last week, but putting together a complete game as a team tonight would say a lot.”