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An Artesia Bulldog prepares to deliver a knockout punch to a Piedra Vista Panther in this drawing by Artesia High School graduate Maegan Lemon. The Bulldogs will open their 2018 playoff run at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bulldog Bowl with a Class 5A state quarterfinal contest against Piedra Vista.

There’s always a slight sense of wistfulness when the Friday night lights give way to the Saturday afternoon sunshine.

It, like autumn itself, is a sign of change. Another regular season of high-school football has come and gone in the City of Champions. Another group of seniors are facing the reality of a maximum of three final opportunities to don the helmets and pads.

But with that comes the excitement only playoff time in New Mexico’s football hotbed can generate. Another road to state has been mapped. A 31st trophy for the laden case at Bulldog Bowl is close enough to taste. And it all starts tomorrow, at home.

Standing between the fourth-ranked Bulldogs and advancement to the Class 5A state semifinal round are the No. 5 Panthers of Piedra Vista. They’re 8-3 on the year, a run team with good size and speed, and they’ll be riding the high of a 55-35 drubbing of 12th-ranked Del Norte last weekend.

But the ‘Dogs don’t schedule an annual gamut for nothing. They’ve battled their way through not only the toughest schedule top to bottom in the classification but the mine field that was District 4-AAAAA in 2018, as well, from whence three of the top four squads in the state emerged.

They’ve been knocked down, they’ve done the knocking, they’ve overcome obstacles and grown, together. Now, all that remains is to get on the field and get the job done.

“This is a good game for us in the sense of having to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing – what we’ve been working on all year long,” head coach Rex Henderson said Thursday.

Piedra Vista has had success throughout the season exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses. Their wins have been by comfortable margins and their losses relatively close.

After falling to Los Lunas in their opener Aug. 24, 22-6, they went on to hold both St. Pius (38-6) and Valley (26-6) to a single touchdown apiece. They did the same to Kirtland Central Sept. 14 but came up on the short end regardless, 7-6. From there, they’ve logged decisive victories over Belen (30-7), Albuquerque High (41-14), Miyamura (42-0), Highland (41-7) and Farmington (28-7) prior to Del Norte, third third loss coming Oct. 12 against Roswell on the road, 26-14.

“Piedra Vista is a good run team,” Henderson said. “They run the ball really well, similar to Goddard in some respects, in that they’re going to be real physical. Their quarterback (Trent Kiraly) is kind of the main guy. They don’t run him as often as Goddard does, but they use him quite a bit, and he’s their most effective runner.”

The 6’2”, 181-pound Kiraly is joined in the backfield by 5’9”, 180-pound senior running back McKay Cook, who has also been a ground force for the Panthers this season.

Blowing open holes for the pair has been P.V.’s sizable offensive line, which averages out at 5’10”, 261 pounds, with guards Benjamin Rasmussen (6’4”, 300) and Julian Ordaz (6’2”, 274) anchoring.

“They’re big up front, so it’s set up to be a good run offense,” said Henderson. “But they’ve got skill guys, as well, and the quarterback is good enough to make plays down the field. So you have to be disciplined in what you’re doing – you can’t just sell out to the run.

“We’re going to have to defend some option responsibilities and make sure we stay keyed up on pass plays and things like that as well.”

Defensively, the Panthers have held their opponents to an average of 12-and-a-half points per game thus far.

“They do a good job of keeping everything in front of them,” Henderson said. “They’re going to tackle well. They’re not as big up front, but they move well, and they’ve held most everybody under what their season average would be, so that’s a sign of good defensive play.”

Henderson says the ‘Dogs will need to be ready for a variety of tests from the Panthers, who like to mix it up both on offense and in the kicking game.

“They do a lot of different things, give you a lot of looks, and that presents challenges, as well,” said the coach. “So we have to be disciplined, because they’ll use some different sets here and there in each phase of the game that’ll give you some things you’ve got to adjust to and make you really pay attention to what they’re doing.

“Anything they can find to create an advantage and put a playmaker in position to make a play, they’ll do.”

The Bulldog offense, meanwhile, has had more than its share of shakeups this year.

Injuries have affected the offensive line virtually all season, and Artesia was twice forced to compensate for the loss of its senior quarterback, Trent Taylor, who went down in Week Two against Hobbs, returned for the start of district, then exited again early in the ‘Dogs’ second D4 game versus Goddard.

Taylor is set to be back under center Saturday, with junior QB Clay Houghtaling returning to the slot position, where he is also a physical force to be reckoned with.

“We’ve been continuing to fine tune this week and make sure we’re still getting better at the things we do,” Henderson said. “I don’t know that it’s anything fancy that we’re doing, we just keep working at it to make sure we’re as consistent as we can be at throwing and catching, blocking, and all the little things.”

The Orange Crush defense, meanwhile, will be looking to prove they’ve shored up the issues that hindered them against Goddard against another run-oriented squad.

“We just have to make sure we’re sound in our assignments and in position to do the things defensively we’re asking them to do,” Henderson said. “A bit part of it is just getting lined up in the right spots, and then making those key reads and things that are essential.”

The Bulldogs also recognize the time has come to put all the elements of a season’s worth of work together as they take their first step into the ones that count.

“They’re excited about the playoffs,” said Henderson. “The season’s kind of been a buildup for this, and they know that this is the time you’ve got to win to keep going and that everything you’ve worked for your whole career is on the line now.

“They’re excited, they’re ready for the challenge, and they’re ready to get after it.”