November 6, 2008

The postgame meeting was short and to the point. The players already knew what their coach was going to say.

Las Cruces (N.M.) High had just stomped Alamogordo in a game that served as little more than a prelude to the coming showdown against rival Mayfield High. Bulldawgs coach Jim Miller was about to tell his players to temper their excitement, to start preparing for the battle Friday night.

"But I didn't have to get up there and do the Vince Lombardi or Lou Holtz," Miller said. "They know what's going on. It's pretty cool; they understand what this game means."

To the state of New Mexico, it means at least 25,000 fans in the Aggie Memorial Stadium stands − and that doesn't necessarily include the people who bombard Las Cruces and Mayfield coaches year round with questions about the showdown.

Since the day Mayfield brought home the state championship last December, coach Michael Bradley said he's heard nothing but talk about this year's reprisal.

In 2007, the Trojans eked out a 14-7 win. In the waning minutes, Las Cruces had a pass intercepted deep in Mayfield territory that effectively ended the game. The defeat was Las Cruces' first of the season. Mayfield went on to win the state crown, and the Bulldawgs lost in the state semifinals.

The Trojans' championship was widely attributed to their win against the Bulldawgs. And, naturally, Las Cruces' semifinal flameout was credited to that costly loss.

Neither Bradley nor Miller would say the game − the No. 9 rivalry in the country according to Rivals.com − determined a team's playoff success. But, at the very least, bragging rights are on the line.

"And my goodness, if you lose, you'll hear about it all year no matter what you do in the playoffs, because it's not just something that builds during the week," Bradley said. "It builds for months. We don't want to give the Bulldawgs any talking rights."

State supremacy has belonged to Mayfield for more than three seasons. The Trojans are on a three-year state championship run and haven't lost to Las Cruces since 2004.

This year's showdown should match the intensity of the 2007 version. Considering the teams' strengths and weaknesses, it'd be a surprise if it didn't go down to the final drive, Bradley said.

Mayfield prides itself on stopping the run; the Bulldawgs' specialty is their rushing attack. The Trojans' secondary is starting to come around, Bradley said, which should pay dividends against Las Cruces two-star senior quarterback Dante Caro. The dual-threat quarterback has modest passing totals, but that's offset by his nearly 70 percent completion rate.

"It's going to be a tight game, I've got no doubt about that," Bradley said. "Whether it's 36-36 or 7-7, it's going to be an absolute battle."

A battle Mayfield enters without 11 graduated all-state players from last year's team. Still, like the Bulldawgs, the Trojans have dominated for most of the season. Mayfield and Las Cruces plowed through their past three opponents by an average of 38 and 33.7 points per game, respectively.

The glaring difference, of course, is that the Trojans have a blemish on their record − a 26-20 loss against Eldorado (Albuquerque, N.M.) High − while the Bulldawgs are undefeated.

That tidbit gives Miller little comfort. Before last year's showdown, the teams had similar records.

"The kids were devastated after that loss," Miller said. "It's fresh in our minds because we want to finish our business this year. Last year we had that feeling that we didn't do everything we could have."

New Mexico's high school football playoffs give first-round byes to the state's top four teams, so it's unlikely either squad would be rushed into a game next week. Still, neither team wants to sit on a devastating loss for two weeks − especially a defeat of such proportions.

Las Cruces and Mayfield alumni fly in from all over the country to watch this game, Bradley said. The coaching staffs "peek at a little extra film all season" preparing for this game, Miller said.

"It's almost like a family reunion with so many people coming in and getting together," Bradley said.

So, the mood in the stands is light and the fans are cordial?

"Well, it is cordial, but this is the real start of the season," Miller said. "The first nine games don't really count anymore. Now we start getting serious. Now it's football time."

Game of the Week: Mayfield Trojan verus Las Cruces Bulldawgs
KEY TO THE GAME: Mayfield Trojans
Mayfield Winning tradition: Mayfield has lost just once in the past three seasons thanks to a star-studded cast that graduated 11 all-state players in 2007. Among those gone is dynamic quarterback Matthew Sandoval, one of the best players in Trojans history. Austin Hooker took his place, and he's flanked by running back Jacob Ceniceros and defensive back Freddy Young, both returning all-state performers. After last week's 33-point win against Onate (Las Cruces, N.M.) High, another Mayfield rival, the Trojans should be playing with a full head of steam.
KEY TO THE GAME: Las Cruces Bulldawgs
Las Cruces Experience: Several of the Bulldawgs' 14 returning starters have been on the varsity team for three years. Coach Jim Miller said he hopes that experience will show on the field. Two-star quarterback Dante Caro is a running threat in any scheme, as is running back James Hall. Both players average more than 10 yards per carry, which should make for a good matchup against Mayfield's relentless rush defense. The Bulldawgs won their past six games by an average of 36.7 points, so it'll be interesting to see how they respond when challenged.
Note: The good ole days
Miller said his squad this year is reminiscent of the ones he had in 1999 and 2000. Those teams, like this season's version, had a stellar quarterback and running back. Those teams also won back-to-back state titles. Miller would like to start a similar run while knocking Mayfield off its current hot streak.




 

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