Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Yodice: Prep football landscape looks much different than last year

La Cueva High quarterback Aidan Armenta may be Class 6A’s top returning passer with Aden Chavez of Cibola having moved to Florida, writes James Yodice.
(Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Even as you read this first sentence, the 2022-23 academic school year in New Mexico is already underway.

Monday marks the official opening of the 2022 prep sports calendar. Which means the start of football season. Some couldn’t wait to get going; Pojoaque Valley greeted Aug. 1 with a midnight workout.

The landscape surely looks different since Cleveland closed out Rio Rancho to win the Class 6A final last November.

The latest realignment has all sorts of new wrinkles.

Manzano, only five years removed from its state championship season of 2017, is out of the largest classification. The Monarchs have fallen to Class 5A, joining other Albuquerque high schools that have been periodically dropping down over the years, like Del Norte, and Highland, and Valley.

Ultimately, this should prove to be a healthy move for Manzano, and give the Monarchs and coach Stephen Johnston — whose first season, last year, was seemingly hexed — a reasonable chance for stability and success.

The 5A division is notable for one other thing: the creation of a super district that is incomprehensibly loaded.

Alamogordo last year was the fourth team in a league with Artesia, Roswell and Goddard.

The fourth team in that district is now Mayfield. This ought to be massively entertaining, except to the men who coach those four teams.

As for 6A, changes abound.

Aside from Cleveland and Rio Rancho having new coaches (I wrote about this in the Sunday Journal), by far the most intriguing storyline of the season, from my chair, is Los Lunas’ promotion from 5A to 6A.

The Tigers last season won their first state football championship, and did so in undefeated fashion. They were one of the top five teams in New Mexico in any class in 2021.

Can this level be sustained in the largest division? The Tigers have perhaps two minor debits as the season begins. First, classes begin in Los Lunas on Monday, and that surely translates into fewer preseason practices than they’d want.

Second, Los Lunas coach Greg Henington said the school is waiting to helmet all his players. There is apparently a backlog with the manufacturer, Henington said the other day. Not everyone wants to be outfitted come Monday. That’s problematic.

On the plus side, Los Lunas’ district is … well, it’s not entirely unfriendly. Clovis was removed from 2-6A and is a member of the new 4-6A that also includes Albuquerque High, Santa Fe and Capital, plus Los Lunas. Capital is the second of four 6A newcomers.

There are four 6A districts, one more than last year. West Mesa was shifted out of 1-6A (Cleveland, Volcano Vista, Rio Rancho, Cibola, Atrisco Heritage) and into 2-6A with La Cueva, Sandia, Eldorado and another 6A newby, Farmington. The Scorpions were a state semifinalist in 5A last fall.

Alamogordo is the fourth 6A rookie, and was placed with Organ Mountain, Las Cruces, Centennial, Hobbs and Carlsbad.

(With an extra district comes an extra automatic state qualifier. The number of at-large teams in 6A will subsequently drop from nine to eight.)

There were a handful of coaching changes in the metro area, besides Cleveland and Rio Rancho. Former Lobo Landrick Brody is at the helm at West Mesa, and his son, Elijah, who was the backup QB at Cleveland, transferred to be a Mustang with his dad. Chris Howe has replaced Rod Williams at Cibola, another team in transition.

Andrew McCraw departed Belen to take over at Clovis, and we’ll all be observing the Wildcats with keen interest the next few months.

Billy Cobos is Valley’s new head coach; his nephew, John (who is actually older than Billy), is Bernalillo’s coach, and as it so happens, they are set to face each other in Week 1, at Bernalillo. Gotta love the symmetry of that.

Speaking of family ties who have previously met as head coaches, Gary Bradley is no longer at Carlsbad. He is coaching with his brother Mike at Mayfield as the offensive coordinator. Oliver Soukup, who was a longtime assistant at New Mexico State, is the Cavemen’s new coach.

The metro area is rich with prominent and explosive athletes. Several — like Cleveland QB Evan Wysong and Storm slot Nic Trujillo — already have verbally committed to Danny Gonzales and UNM. The Lobos have offered a few others, like the dynamic pair of La Cueva QB Aidan Armenta and Bears wide receiver Exodus Ayers, plus a third Bear, Mason Posa. The most offered football player in New Mexico is Cleveland junior linebacker Stratton Shufelt, who has seven Division I offers. So far. Including the Lobos.

With Aden Chavez of Cibola having moved to Florida, Armenta may be 6A’s top returning passer, and he’s coming off an excellent junior season. The amazing Wysong, unquestionably the quickest and most explosive QB in New Mexico — my sincere best wishes to anyone tasked with chasing him down in the open field — gives Cleveland a thrilling playmaker running the show. Los Lunas’ outstanding Paul Cieremans, who practically put the Tigers on his back in the final two playoff rounds last year on the way to a blue trophy, joins Armenta and Wysong as top returning starting signal callers.

Opening night is Thursday, Aug. 18, including Albuquerque Academy versus Rio Grande. The Chargers are a 4A team on the rise, though the Chargers were placed in an extremely difficult district with Lovington, Portales and ever-improving Bernalillo which has become a playoff-caliber program in its own right.

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As for Rio Grande, it also has a new head coach in Chuck Santistevan and remains a football-playing independent. Gadsden, meanwhile, is off the independent list and will join Class 5A, a proper fit for the Panthers.

Scheduling was a lively topic during the offseason. La Cueva’s first-half schedule is obscenely hard, as one example. Cleveland’s is equally demanding, and the Storm — which has three long road trips, two of them to West Texas, a third to Las Cruces High — had to do some juggling to find a full complement of nondistrict opponents. Meanwhile, it’s almost inexplicable that a 6A stalwart like Las Cruces could only find nine games. Centennial also only has nine.

There is much to get to between now and Aug. 18, when the city’s three public stadiums will host openers. It’s Atrisco Heritage-Sandia at Wilson, Academy-Rio Grande at Milne, and Santa Fe-West Mesa at Community. Hope you’ll tag along for the ride.

Tradition says that Labor Day signals the start of autumn and the end of summer.

But if you’re a prep football player, parent or fan, it’s this simple: the summer’s over. Let’s get to it.

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