How many people realize it’s nearly the 25th anniversary of the first football season for Rio Rancho High School?

Twenty-five years ago this month, Rio Rancho High School opened for business, and on Aug. 29, played it first football game.

The Rams didn’t have a field on campus, and went the whole season without a victory.

Victories would have to wait until the ’98 season. The stadium would come in ’99; “home” games in ’97 and ’98 were played at Bernalillo High School.

Times were lean back in the summer of 1997, as the Rams and head coach Bill Moon worked to get ready for what today’s Rams fans would look at as 10 games vs. pushovers: teams that would not only lose against recent versions of the Rams, but possibly not even score.

That cleats was on the other foot 25 years ago, when the Rams lost all 10 games and were out-scored by a hefty 370-70 margin.

That historic first win had to wait until the second game of the 1998 season, a 13-6 victory at Tucumcari.

There were a lot of lopsided scores in ’97, starting with back-to-back shutouts at Moriarty (26-0) and against Rio Grande (41-0 at Milne Stadium).

Then, with 4:30 to go in the first quarter at Mile Stadium, James Frazier galloped 47 yards for the Rams’ first TD, a game in which they held their own in a 27-20 loss to Albuquerque High.

Rio Rancho had found the end zone.

Memories are mostly good

On the Rams’ roster that season is the school’s new head football coach, Nate Pino.

He’d played in 1996 at Cibola, but because he lived in the City of Vision, he became a Ram as a sophomore.

“We lacked facilities; we lacked gear, locker rooms,” Pino said, recalling practices on the field on Loma Colorado Boulevard, just west of the gym.

“The stadium was supposed to be done when we got up here, but it wasn’t,” he said. “I do know our locker room was where the wrestling room is now. We didn’t have lockers.”

Coach Moon was “an old-school coach. He believed in being physical at the line of scrimmage,” Pino said. “It had a lot to do with success; we struggled a little bit – it was different. When Cleveland opened, they had their whole staff at the middle school.

“There was great support. Rio Rancho has had support from the get-go,” said Pino, who played receiver on offense – on a team that didn’t throw much — and cornerback on defense.

“I grew up playing baseball,” not going out for football until his freshman year at Cibola, and later “switched” to track & field.

“Losing is not easy, that’s for darn sure,” Pino said. “Our thought process, I think for a lot of the players, was we were young. We were going to be back. We’re going to take our losses, but we would have a team the next year we could build on.”

That second-year team, when the Rams were 2-8, and again played home games in Bernalillo, still had Moon at the helm, but the roster changed.

“After that first year, a lot of people went back to Cibola,” Pino said. (The 1996 Cougars were 6-4; the ’97 Cougars were 5-5; the ’98 Cougars went 7-3.)

Jeremy Stepic was among them. He’d also had a TD in that Rams loss to the AHS Bulldogs.

He saw some playing time and received a letter as a sophomore at Cibola, but wasn’t happy about his days as a Ram, where he played only his junior season.

Now the athletic coordinator at Mountain View Middle School, Stepic said that inaugural season “was a tough year. I remember there were a lot of us that weren’t happy – Moon was trying to play for the future instead of the present, and that’s his prerogative. That’s why several of us decided to transfer back to Cibola.

“David Branch, Pat Mascarenas, Alex Montoya, Albert Gonzales – at least five of us – and we had a much better team. We ended up beating the Rams that next year 37-3,” he recalled. “We were playing for the present.

“I don’t have any personal animosity against coach Moon. That was his vision,” Stepic said, hoping for the best for Pino, his former teammate. “I hope he does real well.”

At least, Stepic said, until the Rams face Cleveland, which his school feeds its student-athletes to.

“I’m all-in on Cleveland now.”

“Once a Ram, always a Ram,” is how RRHS’s original athletic director, Gary Hveem, wants to be remembered.

That 1997 season “was a real struggle. We had no seniors, but we had good kids … and a coach that was not prepared for (going 0-10).

“But nonetheless, it was a beginning,” Hveem said. “The thing that was most encouraging was with the freshmen and sophomores that were playing. We could see if we got the right people in the right place, good things would happen.”

Those “good things” began happening after Moon was dismissed after three seasons, and Wilson Holland replaced him, taking the Rams to a district runner-up spot in 2000 and the first round of the playoffs.

Hveem said Holland listened to what the parents were saying, which made a difference.

“(He) turned things around – discipline was lacking, and a level of reaching parental input and so on,” Hveem said. “What (the parents) wanted was a good high school experience for their youngster. … 95 percent aren’t playing beyond high school. It’s about the relationships and not overshadowed by scores, established and nurtured by a coaching staff that’s involved off the field.”
Rom Murphy, the only varsity baseball coach at RRHS since the inaugural 1998 season, was an assistant on that ’97 football team.

“One thing I remember for sure was our first game in Moriarty — we had a ton of cars go down there – that was awesome.

“The other thing I remember was the gym wasn’t ready, we had to split up by different lamp posts – it was still dark, and we’d have our meetings there because the gym didn’t have any power then,” Murphy said. “There was more light there and had our offensive meetings, our defensive meetings — just the coaches. It was kinda unique, to say the least.”

Overall, Murphy’s lasting memory is the fan support.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “Every one of our games was packed – our record didn’t matter. The community came out. It was a great way to start out our school. That first year was amazing for a lot of sports.”

“A foundation was built,” Pino concluded. “It was a slow and steady ride, but I think we got there.”

Yeah, the Rams got there. RRHS has advanced to the playoffs every season, except in 2020, when there was no postseason, since 2004 – winning state championships in 2014 and ’16, and losing the last two championships, in ’19 and ’21, to that other Rio Rancho school.

25 years of gridiron memories

First game: Aug. 29, 1997 (26-0 loss at Moriarty)

First TD: Sept. 13, 1997 (by James Frazier)

Rams QB Ed Lovato looks for an open receiver. (Observer file photo)

First victory: Sept. 12, 1998 (13-6 at Tucumcari)

First game at Rio Rancho Stadium: Aug. 27, 1999 (Moriarty 14, Rams 11)

First winning season: (2000, 7-4)

First playoff game: Nov. 18, 2000 (21-14 loss at Carlsbad)

100th game: Oct. 6, 2006 (Rams 20, Eldorado 17)

200th game: Aug. 28, 2015 (Rams 42, Valley 12)

275th game: Aug. 19, 2022 (vs. visiting La Cueva)

First championship: Dec. 5, 2014 (Rams 33, Mayfield 31)