LAS CRUCES — Ninety seven degrees at halftime?
No problem for Cameroon, Africa, native Harris Mbueha and the visiting Storm at the Field of Dreams in Las Cruces Saturday afternoon.
He finished the game with 152 yards on 33 carries, and although the offense struggled when he was getting a break, the defending Class 6A champs won this opener with defense.
The victory avenged the 2022 loss to the Hawks, who ended Cleveland’s 22-game winning streak and 15-game home streak at Lightning Bolt Stadium. The teams almost met in the championship game, although La Cueva ended Centennial’s dream in a semifinal game.
“We came out (in the second half), we do what we do,” Mbueha said, admitting he was tired.
Recording four sacks and limiting the Hawks’ offense to 34 rushing yards and 114 through the air, plus a pick-6 by Marcus La Cuesta, the Storm D didn’t allow a third-down conversion in the decisive second half. Malachi Jaramillo and Juan Muñoz also intercepted Centennial aerials.
After a scoreless first quarter, Cleveland’s second-period touchdowns followed a blocked punt and a wind-affected punt that went a minus-2 yards.
Mbueha made the Hawks pay for their first punting gaffe with a 1-yard TD, after Louie Birch blocked that punt and the Storm recovered it on the 1.
The Storm made it an 8-0 lead when what was planned to be a point-after kick resulted in a bad snap from center, and holder Jaden Davis found La Cuesta alone in the northeast corner of the end zone and tossed the ball to him.
Centennial tied the game at 8 three plays after Christian Ortiz returned the kickoff following Mbueha’s TD 59 yards to the Storm 32; Rudy Rios scored on a 6-yard rush; Jordan Lucas caught a 2-point conversion pass from QB Daniel Hernandez.
A Hawks’ punt into the wind that went a minu-s2 yards set the Storm up 22 yards from paydirt, and on the first play of that possession, sophomore QB Jordan Hatch connected with Angel Gallegos on a TD pass. The PAT try Malachi Mitchell was blocked and the Storm took a 14-8 lead into their locker room at halftime.
With 3:30 left in the third quarter, Karter Weddle caught a 22-yard pass from Hatch, making his first varsity start, and it was 21-8 heading into the final period. Malachi Mitchell tacked on the PAT.
La Cuesta’s 46-yard interception return for a score with 3:50 left in regulation put it away, with the Hawks stopping Mbueha on a run for 2 following the TD.
As for using Mbueha close to three-dozen times on the hot turf surface, Storm head coach Robert Garza said.
“You don’t; want to, but we know Harris, and Harris is a tough kid. He wanted to keep going. I thought (Isaiah) Yannis came in and spelled him pretty good toward the end. It got hotter and hotter.”
Yannis, a junior, had seven carries for 38 yards.
Storm warnings: Lightning Bolt Stadium could be jam-packed Friday when the Storm and La Cueva Bears meet in a rematch of the 2022 Class 6A title tilt. To what should be nobody’s surprise, MaxPreps has the Storm and Bears ranked 1-2, just like they finished last season. Cleveland holds a 5-4 advantage over the Bears through their first nine meetings, but that includes a victory by La Cueva in its last visit to Lightning Bolt Stadium: a 33-14 verdict in the 2018 championship game. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
… Here’s a great stat: In the 14 games the Storm have played at the Field of Dreams, they are unbeaten. That streak includes the memorable victory over host Mayfield in the 2011 championship game, capping the first “Perfect Storm” campaign.