From left, Rams linemen Noah Hampsten, Damian Zamora, Kenneth Miller and Marco Gonzales battled – and beat – Sandia in a tug of war on July 17.


A blazing sun, temperatures in the low 100s and some 7-on-7 competition slated for 6 p.m. at Rio Rancho Stadium on July 17.

What to do? Move the start time to 7 p.m., when it was maybe two degrees cooler.

No problem, because these football coaches at eight metro area schools want to get their players some reps before the season starts next month. And the competition also included some challenges for linemen, including the always popular, rope-burns-on-the-fingers tug of wars.

Second-year Rio Rancho High School football coach Nate Pino likes what he’s seen to far of his team, which opens the 2023 season August 18 at Wilson Stadium vs. last year’s 6A runner-up, La Cueva.

“It’s been good,” Pino said last week, shortly before a 7-on-7 event with three other teams at Rio Rancho Stadium, with temperatures close to the century mark.

“We did the UNM camp, a big round-robin in Socorro. We got better; it was super-competitive.”

Quarterbacks? He’s got two, senior Nate Nelson and junior JJ Arellano, both with extensive experience from last season.

That’s when Nelson got hurt during the Homecoming game and Arellano stepped right in and took the Rams to a few wins. Then Nelson came back, and Pino’s sticking with Nelson for the opener, because Arellano’s not 100 percent from a torn ACL in the first-round playoff game vs. Alamogordo.

“JJ probably won’t be cleared till Week 3,” Pino said. “JJ’s able to throw; he’s not ready to run team activities yet, but he’s close.”

Before that, he showed he’s capable of leading – he threw six TD passes and ran for a score in a rout of Atrisco Heritage, rushed for 89 yards and threw two TD passes and ran for two more in a rout of Cibola, and tossed three TD passes in a loss to Volcano Vista, a game in which the Rams never reached the red zone.

The goal has always to be balanced, Pino said, expecting a 50-50 ratio of pass to run.

“Noah’s been throwing the ball really well and JJ’s gotten better; JJ was a heck of a runner last year, but he was green,” Pino said. “This (injury) has been a little blessing in disguise for him, because he’s not been able to as much of the running stuff and he’s had to focus on throwing the ball. … He leads by example, and he’s a good leader in the huddle.”

As for Nelson, “(He’s) shown a lot of maturity since last season and he’s worked really hard,” he said. “We’ll see how that shakes out. Noah’s definitely going to start the season, but JJ’s gonna find opportunities when he’s cleared, because he’s a heck of a football season.”

Nelson will also see time in the defensive backfield, as he did last season. .

Of course, in 7-on-7 drills, there’s no threat of a pass rush and a sack.

No matter who’s under center – or, in the Rams’ case – in shotgun formation, there are plenty of capable targets to throw to, Pino said.

“Dominic Valencia’s back, Anthony Raymer – he played slot during the district season for us; he’s pretty dynamic, and the tight ends, we have Mike Santos, and David Butler.”

Add in running back Rayce Ramirez, and there’s another target.

“The defense is really coming along offensively as well,” he said. “We’re executing at a higher level – the reps are helping it.”

The offensive line is solid, he said, and anchored by returning center Jose Ontiveros.

“The four other guys are all rising juniors – a really good class – and we’re excited to have them for two years. Jack Warble does a great job for us at left tackle; Ronnie Thomas is going to be a really good guard for us. We’ve got six dudes, and really seven – we’ve another who’s gonna be a sophomore.

“We have a bunch of juniors with varsity experience,” Pino added. “I think our kids are gonna compete. When our guys get after it, we’ll see where we’re at.”

“I think last year we were a big group up front, but they struggled a little bit with execution,” Pino added. “This group’s not as big as last year’s group, but they communicate well; they’re smart … they’re all power-lifters. Bode Victor, up from JV, and Jace Pitt – give us some depth. We got a good little group.”

On defense, Ryan Brown, already with a few commitments from in-state schools, other than UNM and NMSU.

“He’s a heck of a football player, and he’ll be a good football player wherever he goes,” he said, adding Nelson and Raymer have good chances of playing on Saturdays in the future.

Bryson Strohecker, when he’s not playing soccer, and Lexi Burt return as the kickers; last season, Burt became the first girl to score a point in a varsity game, when she booted a point-after.

Pino said he’s pretty sure this will be the motto for the coming season: “Rise Up:”

Responsibility, being accountable.

Improvement, pushing yourself to get better.

Servitude, putting others before yourself.

Effort, doing the right thing all the time and effort in the little things consistently.

Unity, being a part of the team.

Perseverance, dealing with adversity.