Isaiah Chavez and Zach Vigil scored three touchdowns apiece and No. 4 Rio Rancho never trailed Saturday afternoon in its Class 6A state semifinal battle with No. 1 Volcano Vista at Nusenda Community Stadium.
The Rams’ 48-30 victory sent them into the championship game on Saturday, Nov. 30, against visiting No. 3 Cleveland (10-2), who opened the month of November with a 35-20 victory over the Rams at Rio Rancho Stadium where the Storm haven’t lost since 2009 and are 5-1 all-time vs. their city foe.
But, as “they” like to say, in a rivalry game, you can throw away the record books.
The Storm slid into the championship game for the second year in a row and fourth time overall after their 56-43 victory at No. 2 Clovis on Nov.22. This marks the second time the City of Vision teams have met in the postseason: Cleveland beat the visiting Rams 42-38 in a 2011 semifinal.
Interestingly, this is the fifth time in the last six seasons the 6A championship game has been contested in Rio Rancho: The Rams beat Mayfield and Las Cruces, respectively, to complete perfect 13-0 seasons in 2014 and ’16; the Storm were 13-0 after they beat visiting Eldorado in the 2015 title game, and La Cueva spoiled Cleveland’s bid for a third state championship – Cleveland went 13-0 and won the 5A crown in 2011 at the Field of Dreams in Las Cruces – last December.
The Storm have scored at least 35 points in 11 of their 12 games, managing “only” 21 points in their quarterfinal victory over Centennial.
The Rams (9-4) have scored 35 or more points eight times, and have won four of their six home games – with head coach David Howes still lamenting the Rams’ loss to visiting Centennial in the opener, a game in which the Rams had a 28-point lead in the second half.
Howes was feeling pretty good, though, last Saturday, during his team’s romp over the previously unbeaten Hawks.
The tone was set early: The Rams took the opening kickoff and marched 85 yards in 18 plays, eating up more than eight minutes as they grabbed a 7-0 lead. Vigil capped the drive on a 5-yard run and Zach Benedict added the first of his six points-after.
The Hawks’ Ivan Rodriguez then returned Benedict’s ensuing kickoff 99 yards, after taking a handoff on a reverse, and Christian Sanchez tied it at 7 with a PAT.
The Rams then used up the rest of the first-quarter clock, meaning Volcano Vista did not run a single play from scrimmage in it – “That was the plan,” Howes joked after the game — and took the lead to keep with 10:50 left in the first half on Vigil’s 8-yard run. Benedict’s kick missed, but it wouldn’t matter.
“We just wanted to keep their offense off the field,” Vigil said. “We wanted to run the clock with our run game and that’s what we did.”
By halftime, and after Chavez had scored his first two touchdowns, the Rams held a 27-17 lead, thanks in part to converting 8 of 10 third-down plays. Rio Rancho’s scoring drives had all been 62 yards or longer. The Hawks, who beat the Rams 51-43 at Nusenda Community Stadium on Oct. 26, had been behind at halftime just once previously this season.
Taking the second-half kickoff, the Hawks drove 80-yards on 11 plays, pulling within a field goal at 27-24.
No problem: The Rams responded with a 10-play, 49-yard scoring drive of their own, with Vigil finding the end zone on a 3-yard run. Benedict’s PAT gave the Rams a 34-24 lead to take into the fourth quarter.
Late in the third period, setting the stage for the final outcome, the Rams’ defense made a big fourth-down stop on the Hawks, as heralded quarterback Diego Pavia was pulled down by Jeramiah Esquibel for a 1-yard loss on what looked to be a broken play in the Volcano Vista backfield: Pavia looked for a back to pitch to, but nobody was there.
The Rams then took over on the Hawks’ 45 and scored after eight rushing plays, with Chavez matching Vigil’s three TDs with a 10-yard run to paydirt.
The Rams led, 41-24, but 10:07 remained in the game.
The Hawks’ final TD of the season came on their next possession, on Pavia’s third TD pass of the game, and the Rams’ lead was 41-30 with nine minutes left in regulation.
Rio Rancho wasn’t done, as Chavez led his team on a 65-yard scoring drive, with the first 10 plays all on the ground before the scoring strike to Tyrese Watson, a pass intended for Nick Rotert but inadvertently tipped to an alert Watson, who took it into the end zone with less than three minutes left.
Although they got the ball again, the Hawks were done – they fumbled it away as Rams fans chanted, “This is our house” as the clock wore down.
By game’s end, both teams’ quarterbacks and rushed for more than 100 yards and their teams penalized for more than 100 yards; Chavez had 150 yards on his 33 carries. (Vigil also eclipsed the century mark, with 112 yards on 28 carries.)
Howes said the key to the upset was preparation.
“The coaching staff doesn’t let them up and these kids responded, and I’m just so proud of them, I really am,” he said. “We’ve had a couple (big) wins, but this is by far one of the biggest wins we’ve ever had – not because of who they are and what they’ve done this year, but about the fight in these kids and who they are.”
Maybe the Hawks were looking past the Rams?
“There’s no way they overlooked us – there’s no way,” he said. “You never overlook the Rams – there’s no way.”
Chavez “has been a three-year warrior and he follows that guy (offensive lineman Ryan Ortiz). Zach Vigil and five offensive linemen give everything they have every day. Great receivers, a great coaching staff – I’m proud of every one of them.”
Chavez – a guy best defined by the word warrior – said he “left it all out there on the field.
“Those shots hurt for a little bit, but it doesn’t compare to this win,” he said. “Our great offensive scheme; our great defensive scheme. Give it up to our coaches – they planned all this out, we just had to go and execute.”
“We just believed the whole time. The whole week, we just grinded it out,” Vigil added, “knowing we could beat them because the last game they showed us weakness. If you show us weakness, we’re going to take advantage of that.”
“This one means something different,” he said, “because everyone doubted us in the state – they didn’t think we were gonna be here. We just came across and pulled through.
“Our offensive line just showed the whole state why they’re No1. 1 in the line,” he lauded. “This team is something special – it’s just like the 2016 Rio Rancho team. We’re gonna work hard and push through this.”
Although they’ve been “owned” by the Storm, who are 8-4 all time against the Rams, Vigil and Chavez are looking forward to avenging another 2019 loss.
“We all want it. Anywhere’s our house.”
RAMifications: Lineman Ryan Ortiz told the Observer Saturday that he has received an offer to play football next season at St. Ambrose University, an NAIA school in Davenport, Iowa. The Fighting Bees were 4-5 this season.
… Going back a few seasons, the Rams were the No. 1 seed in the 2012 postseason, one year after making it into the “final four” for the first time in school history, and were upset at home by Volcano Vista, 25-24, in a quarterfinal meeting.
… Ticket prices for Saturday’s showdown are $10 for adults and $5 for students. Tickets will be pre-sold today (Monday, Nov. 25) and Tuesday in the schools’ athletics offices from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. today and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday. The ticket booth will open at 11:30am on the day of the game. Tickets can also be purchased online at https://gofan.co/app/school/NMAA.
… The 6A championship game will be live-streamed at nfhsnetwork.com/channels/new-mexico.