It wasn't just a win that gave Aztec vindication after a year of highs and lows, it was a win that gave comfort to generations of Aztec players who went to battle at the Bulldog Bowl in Artesia.
The world famous Bulldog Bowl was once again a perfect venue for a brilliantly played high school football state playoff game. No. 6 Aztec and No. 3 Artesia combined for 1,331 yards of total offense in a shootout Saturday, but yet another magical performance in clutch time in the career of Aztec senior quarterback Adam Lucero gave the Tigers an edge. A miracle touchdown catch by Wyatt Schlueter with just 10 seconds remaining sent the game to overtime with Aztec carrying momentum.
Tied at 55, Artesia and Aztec went into overtime with Artesia handling the ball first. The Bulldogs moved backward on its possession and an incomplete pass from junior quarterback Trevor Eulenbach on 4th-and-goal from the 14 gave Aztec the ball on the 10-yard line needing just one score to win. A holding call moved Aztec back to to the 20-yard line and a negative run made it 2nd-and-goal from the 22-yard line before Lucero hit Cody Rinerson on a slant over the middle of the field. Rinerson avoided Artesia tacklers and stretched the ball over the goal line to give the Tigers a 61-55 overtime win in the 4A state quarterfinals.
It was Aztec's first win in school history at the Bulldog Bowl, where the Tigers were 0-4 in previous games. According to New Mexico football historian Dan Ford, Artesia is now 8-3 all-time in games against Aztec.
Defending 4A state champion Aztec (7-4) advanced to the state semifinals with the win. The Tigers will face No. 2 Los Lunas (11-0) at home next Saturday at 1 p.m. after winning a coin-toss to determine home field advantage.
But for at least a few hours, the Tigers enjoyed the spoils that go with a playoff win at Artesia.
“There aren't very many times you can go into the Bulldog Bowl and beat Artesia,” Lucero said. “To win a game like that requires total effort from every man on the team. Before every game, I look up at the sky knowing it might be my last game ever but knowing I don't want it to be. I love this sport. We all do. We hang on to every moment we have in close games like that because you never know when the final play clock can run out on your career.”
Lucero went from local hero to statewide sensation with his performance in the semifinals against Valencia and state title game against Goddard in 2011. Superman himself wouldn't have believed what Lucero still had in store for his final trip to Artesia.
Trailing 55-48 with 1:47 to play, Lucero led the Tigers on a 77-yard scoring drive that concluded with a 27-yard pass to Schlueter in the back right corner of the end zone that gave kicker Garrett Tucker the opportunity to tie the game with an extra point.
“Lucero really couldn't have thrown a better ball to me in the situation,” Schlueter said. “I mean, it was a perfect spot to throw and all I had to do is go up and hold onto it. I am still amazed by the catch. It is one of the most amazing feelings I have ever felt. I have grown up watching Aztec win big games, and getting to share that feeling with all my brothers is just as great as the win.”
Lucero and the rest of the Tigers gave the credit to Schlueter for his remarkable catch over an Artesia corner back.
“Seeing Wyatt go up for that ball was one of my favorite plays in my life,” Lucero said. “I kind of put trust in him and he got up and got it.”
It was a big moment for Schlueter, who has stepped up alongside Rinerson to help fill the void that was left when star senior wide-receiver Andrew Pope was killed in a car accident just weeks before the season began.
“It was very emotional. During the game, it was hard not to be emotional,” Lucero said. “Every time I look up and see Pope’s number 24 on the play clock or scoreboard I think of him. Pope was here with us today. Halfway through the game, Brad Hardin came up to me and told me it was Nov. 24 — Andrew’s number. It puts everything in perspective when you think about it. We were playing for Andrew. I know he would have been here working his butt off with us. We have been through and overcome a lot, and I know he was there with us.”
In overtime, Eulenbach was unable to find wide receiver Weston Leonard, who he had connected with for three touchdowns in the second half. The Bulldogs tried an option run on second down but pressure got to Eulenbach as he made the pitch to third-string running back Donovan Orosco, filling in for junior Gavino Saiz, who was injured in the first half and watched from the sidelines on crutches in the second. The pitch fell to the turf before being covered by the Bulldogs on the 14-yard line. When the fourth down pass fell incomplete, all Aztec needed was a touchdown, and Rinerson delivered.
“The stop in overtime was huge. Moving them back and getting the stop on fourth down gave us all sorts of confidence,” said Aztec first-year head coach Matt Steinfeldt.
Lucero finished the game 23-45 passing with four touchdowns and 388 yards. His four touchdown passes went to four different receivers with Brad Hardin scoring from 11 yards out on Aztec’s first drive and Braden Goimarac hauling in a 66-yard bomb late in the first half.
“I would not want to have any other person out there than Lucero,” Hardin said. “He knows how to win a game and when games are this close, I have full faith with the ball in his hands. I know he is a play maker and will always make big plays.”
Though the Aztec passing game accounted for the final two scores, it was the rushing attack that won the game for the Tigers.
Aztec ran for 347 yards in the game, led by Ryneal Lewis-Adams’ 218 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries.
Hardin also reached 103 yards on the ground while scoring twice more on 14 carries.
Aztec’s offensive line devastated Artesia up the middle, helping Lewis-Adams and Hardin find gaping holes all day.
“I knew going into this game we were bigger up front and more athletic,” said left tackle Joey Dotson. “Don’t get me wrong, Artesia was tough, but we just overpowered them. It helps having guys like Conner Gaskins and Riley Quigley up front and being able to trust them. They keep our hearts and faith in it. Center Matt Stalcup battled sickness and still had a great game, and right tackle Justin Slavy stepped us as a sophomore. Hardin and Lewis-Adams are great backs finding those holes.”
Artesia’s players specialize on either offense or defense while Aztec had eight starters playing on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs believed they could wear down Aztec, but the Tigers played through fatigue and battled every snap.
“We had to work for it. Fighting through what felt like cardiac arrest from playing both sides of the ball, it was nice to take our anger out on the players in Artesia’s defensive box,” Quigley said. “Run after run Artesia was getting more and more pissed off. They have a good push, but we blocked harder.”
Steinfeldt told the offensive line before the game that the game would come down to their play, Gaskins said.
“Coach told us we had to hit them hard and put them on their butt and that is what we did,” Gaskins said. “Having the Muffalo, Brad Hardin the half-man half-buffalo, and Lewis-Adams as our backs makes it an honor to play line.”
Artesia jumped out to a 7-0 lead after a 67-yard Eulenbach pass to Miguel Rodriguez set up an eight-yard Eulenbach touchdown run.
The Tigers responded with a 10-play 65-yard drive to tie the game at seven before Aztec recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Starting from the Artesia 31-yard line, it didn’t take Lewis-Adams to score his first touchdown of the game to give Aztec a 14-7 lead.
But on the first play of Artesia’s second offensive possession, Eulenbach hit Rodriguez on a 74-yard touchdown strike to even the game at 14.
Lewis-Adams scored again with 4:21 left in the first quarter to give Aztec a 21-14 advantage, and it became clear a shootout was in the cards.
Rinerson came down with an interception for Aztec on Artesia’s next drive that set Aztec up for an eight-play 37-yard drive that concluded with a Hardin one-yard touchdown run.
Artesia drove once again and Saiz broke off a big run inside Aztec territory, but the Tigers forced a fumble on their own four-yard line that Hardin recovered to give Aztec the ball back.
The Tigers were forced to punt, however, and Saiz ran for a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
However, Dotson blocked the extra point attempt by Orosco to keep the game at 28-20 in favor of Aztec.
Lucero then hit Goimarac on the 66-yard touchdown with 3:46 left in the second quarter to conclude the first-half scoring.
Aztec opened the second half with a 16-play drive that ate 5:58 of game clock, but the drive stalled on the Artesia three-yard line when the Tigers turned the ball over on downs.
In just five plays, Artesia went 97 yards that concluded with a Eulenbach touchdown pass to Leonard.
Eulenbach found Leonard for another touchdown just three minutes later to tie the game at 35.
Aztec then fumbled the kickoff to set Artesia up on the Tigers’ 13-yard line. One play later, Orasco was in the end zone on a run to the left and Artesia was back on top 42-35.
Refusing to go down late in the third quarter, Aztec drove right back down the field and Hardin scored on a one yard touchdown run following a 45-yard burst through the middle of the Artesia defense.
Right before the end of the third quarter, the Bulldogs took a shot deep with the wind at their backs. Schlueter came down with an interception for the Tigers that set up a 13-play, 92-yard touchdown drive for Aztec. It was Lewis-Adams this time scoring from a yard out.
However, the extra point was blocked, which inevitably would lead to more dramatic moments.
With 5:32 to play, Artesia tied the game when Eulenbach ran in for another score from a yard out. But the extra point went wide of the uprights, leaving the game tied at 48.
Aztec went three-and-out on the next drive and Artesia drove right back down the field to score on a 23-yard pass from Eulenbach to Leonard. Leading 55-48 with just 1:52 to play, the game appeared to be in the hands of the Bulldogs defense, who needed to get Lucero off the field.
It never happened, and Lucero rode off with another impressive playoff victory.
“I think our boys came in here understanding the game plan and they never faltered,” said Steinfeldt. “We have had our ups and downs and Artesia is certainly one of the best teams in the state, but our boys believed.”
After opening the season with consecutive losses to Los Lunas and Goddard, few believed the Tigers could reach a state semifinal game, especially with a trip to Artesia in the quarterfinals.
“It was unexpected. I feel we have earned every bit of what we have achieved for all the odds that have been against us this entire year. We return to Aztec with a proud win,” Quigley said.
Steinfeldt has seen his team improve each week, and Hardin said the team continues to add new plays to the book each week as the team continues to come together.
“All season, we have had a goal of where we want to finish. People questioned what direction we were going in, but we have improved each week, and most people who watched today won’t believe we are the same team we were the first few weeks of the year,” Steinfeldt said. “It was exciting to watch our boys in this victory. The guys are extremely psyched.”
Aztec and Los Lunas hooked up in Week 1 of the season at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium with the Tigers of Los Lunas beating Aztec 50-28.
But the Tigers wouldn’t want to face anyone else in the state semifinal as they continue a revenge tour.
“All I can say is, come into our house twice, Los Lunas, and I guarantee you aren’t coming out with two wins,” Dotson said.
Lucero has said all year he believes Aztec is the best team in the state, even following the Week 2 loss at Goddard 63-0.
He has envisioned playing Los Lunas in the state semifinals and Goddard in the title game to avenge the two early season losses, but beating Artesia was all about getting revenge for the 2010 state championship loss in which Brycson King was the quarterback.
“The moment Rinerson scored the winning touchdown, I thought of Brycson King,” Lucero said. “The worst feeling of my life was looking in his eyes knowing we didn’t get him and Matt Hegarty and Tylin Hirsch a ring. I have to say this win is for them and the whole community. We had a great crowd from Aztec drive eight hours here to support us. We got revenge for 2010. We might not get a ring for 2010, but I hope this helps put that whole senior class at ease. We beat them on their turf. It is a great win for any Tiger who has ever played Artesia.”