The mission: revenge. The goal: a return to the 4A state championship game to face No. 1 Goddard.
No. 2 Los Lunas (11-0) visits No. 6 Aztec (7-4) this afternoon at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium. Both are nicknamed the Tigers, but the two teams couldn’t have taken a more different path to the semifinals since the two teams met up in Aztec in Week 1 of the regular season.
Los Lunas battered a raw Aztec team still adjusting to life under a new head coach while just nine months removed from the school’s first state championship since 1953.
After the loss, few across the state would have predicted Aztec to be a game away from an opportunity to defend the state championship in this year’s title game. But with an offense clicking at the right time and a defense proven to make big plays, Aztec plans on winning as underdogs again just a week after upsetting No. 3 Artesia in overtime at the Bulldog Bowl
“The mindset is probably a little different for all of us. Those of us like Brad Hardin, Joey Dotson and myself have already been here three times, so we know what to expect,” Aztec senior quarterback Adam Lucero said of playing in the semifinals. “As far as the guys who haven’t been in this situation before, I know for a fact they’ll step up and come through for us because of the way our coaches and leaders have prepared us.
“One thing we all have in common, experienced or not, is that we want to win.”
Lucero has been electric in the second half of the season while he has found dependable receivers beyond Hardin, who has 14 touchdown receptions, in guys such as Wyatt Schlueter, Cody Rinerson and Braden Goimarac.
Lucero has passed for 34 touchdowns this season while passing for over 3,000 yards.
Against Los Lunas in Week 1, Lucero threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns while also being intercepted once. However, most of the yards came late in the fourth quarter when the game was already out of reach in favor of Los Lunas.
But Lucero is licking his chops to get a second crack at a group of Los Lunas players he has come to consider friends through interactions in baseball and various football camps.
“I am glad we get to play Los Lunas. Anytime you lose to a team you want to see them again,” Lucero said after beating Artesia. “They have a solid defense with some monsters up front and in the second and third levels. With that being said, I have more respect for how far we have come as a team, especially our offense.”
Since surrendering 28 points to Aztec in Week 1, the Los Lunas defense has allowed only 31 points in 10 games, including five shutouts.
“Los Lunas is a great team, and their defense is the corner stone of it,” said Aztec head coach Matt Steinfeldt. “You talk to anyone about championship teams, and the conversation starts with defense. They definitely pose a challenge, but we look forward to that challenge.”
Los Lunas head coach Jeremy Newton’s defense put on another display last week in the quarterfinals against Piedra Vista, holding the No. 7 Panthers to just seven points. But Newton’s offense has also been effective controlling the ball, rushing for an average of 222.8 yards per game while senior quarterback Chris Wisnewski has made the plays he has needed to through the air. Wisnewski averages 111.1 yards per game passing, and he has thrown 19 touchdown passes this year to just four interceptions.
Aztec hopes the biggest difference against Los Lunas this time around is the rushing attack, which went for a net of only 10 yards the first time around.
With a tweaked offensive line and running backs Ryneal Lewis-Adams and Hardin powering through tackles, Aztec has averaged 284 rushing yards in its two playoff games so far this season, including 347 last week at Artesia.
“It is something we have really worked to establish the last two weeks. Ryneal has really come on for us as the season has gone on,” Steinfeldt said. “That first game of the year was Ryneal’s first high school football game ever. He is no longer that young guy trying to figure it out. He has become one of the better running backs in the state.”
The leadership of Dotson, Hardin and Lucero has made preparing for this big game all the easier for Aztec.
“Having those three guys with all the time they got last year in the state championship, they set the tempo for our entire team,” Steinfeldt said. “They have been there before and are tested when it comes to the playoffs and that is a great benefit for our football team.”
Aztec is hoping its past experience will be a big advantage against a Los Lunas team that hit the scene in 2011 and is ready to make the leap to state champion.
But Aztec also knows it will have quite the home field advantage after winning a coin toss that determined home field.
“Anytime you host a game in Aztec during the playoffs, you are going to have the whole community come out,” Steinfeldt said. “We are looking forward to seeing our Aztec fans, but we are also looking forward to the Four Corners community as a whole coming out. I know those guys at Farmington High and Piedra Vista will come out and support District 1-4A, and I know we will have a great advantage with the Four Corners behind us.”
The winner of today’s game will face the Rockets. Aztec would have to travel to Roswell to play Goddard with a win after the Rockets visited Aztec for the 2011 state title game, while a coin toss would determine the home team if Los Lunas is to win.
The Rockets advanced to the title game Friday night with a 35-6 win against No. 4 Belen