Published: 11:40 am, Thu. Nov. 22nd, 2018Updated: 11:38 am
“We knew when we played them in district and won by a point that we were going to see them again,” head coach Rex Henderson said today.
Since about mid-season, it’s been an inevitability accepted by everyone in Class 5A: This year’s blue trophy is, one way or the other, going to come through District 4.
Artesia, Roswell High and Goddard spent the final weeks of the pre-playoff slate comprising the classification’s top-three teams in the polls, and they’d have entered the state-tournament bracket the same way if not for a district championship that pushed Los Lunas into the No. 3 slot.
That placed the Bulldogs and Coyotes in the same half of the bracket and set the stage for that second meeting both programs knew was coming.
Los Lunas and Goddard, meanwhile, will compete in 5A’s other semifinal bout at 1 p.m. Saturday in Tiger Country.
Artesia’s Oct. 19 showdown with Roswell at Bulldog Bowl was several years in the making, the sort of clash of which the Coyotes have been working to be capable since head coach Jeff Lynn took the helm.
Tied 14-14 at the break and 28-28 at the end of three, the final 12 minutes of play would have ended in a draw, as well, had the ‘Dogs not opted to go for the knockout punch with 1:41 remaining in the game. The offense capped its final touchdown with a conversion run by junior Clay Houghtaling, and the Orange Crush defense was able to fend Roswell off through the final seconds.
The Bulldogs will be looking for the same outcome tonight at Wool Bowl – just with a bit less drama.
“We need to come out and executive well offensively tonight,” Henderson said. “We came out of the first half last time with 14 points, and we’d definitely like to see a few more points scored in the first half this time.
“Defensively, we need to be ready to contain their speed. I think we did some good things last time, but we can definitely do a better job against their run game.”
The Coyotes were able to compile 247 rushing yards against Artesia Oct. 19, with running back Justin Carrasco playing the role of workhorse with 255 yards and two touchdowns on 41 carries. Quarterback Ethan Valenzuela was nine of 16 for 141 yards and two scores.
Roswell High went on from their loss to the ‘Dogs to earn their share of the three-piece district-championship pie with a 24-21 victory over Goddard in their regular-season finally, won – in shades of Goddard vs. Artesia – on a field goal in the final moments.
The Coyotes made short work of eighth-ranked Valley last week in Roswell, 49-8.
Neither Artesia nor Roswell’s modus operandi is broken, so it’s a safe bet there won’t be much tinkering with the game plan today. However, there’s still an element of the unknown in how the Coyotes will respond to having lost the last go-round.
“They’re like us when it comes to putting a system in place in the sense that they don’t tend to change what they do,” Henderson said. “They tend to be who they are and just keep getting better at what they do and finding ways to do it.
“It wouldn’t be typical of them to change anything, but at the same time, there’s a sense they might think some of the things that didn’t go well for them the first time need changed. I’m sure they’ve got the same questions, and that’s part of coaching – whether you’re going to say ‘Let’s try something different’ or ‘We’re in good shape, we just need to do it better,’ and I don’t know which side they’ll fall onto.”
One variable Henderson knows could play a vital role in the outcome tonight should things proceed as narrowly as the time before is special teams play.
“We need to win the kicking game,” said the coach. “That’s a big one in a game where two teams are as evenly matched as we are, so if we can win the kicking game, it should make a significant difference.”
In the lesser-populated portion of the state, teams are accustomed to having to play their district opponents more than once, and it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, the cards have essentially been shown, giving athletes a clear idea of exactly how to prepare. On the other, when familiarity renders the matchup basically even, emotions come to play a larger role.
What will likely decide today’s semifinal is a simple matter of heart. Which team wants it more?
“Our guys have been ready for this for a while,” said Henderson. “They just all knew the state game would be going through Roswell at some point, and they’re pretty excited to get out there tonight.”