Aztec’s brutal schedule to begin the season is over.
After falling to the state’s No. 1 and No. 2 4A teams in consecutive weeks, Aztec was able to secure its first win against No. 10 Miyamura a week ago, Friday night’s contest didn’t get any easier in Albuquerque against 5A Manzano, the No. 5 ranked team in the classification.
Aztec (1-3) spotted Manzano (4-1) a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter at Wilson Stadium and the Tigers were chasing the Monarchs the rest of the way as Manzano cruised to a 47-20 win.
“We gave a lot, but it still wasn’t enough to win,” said Aztec senior quarterback Adam Lucero.
The Tigers started the game with possession of the ball and quickly turned it over on downs on their own 28-yard line.
Manzano took just six plays to score the game’s opening touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, Aztec fumbled the ball and once again gave the Monarchs the ball inside Aztec’s own 30-yard-line.
“You can’t give a team like Manzano points like that early,” Lucero said.
Aztec turned the ball over five times in the game. Manzano turned the first four of those into 28 points and used the last to knee out the clock in the fourth quarter.
“Turnovers were a problem for us all night,” said Aztec first-year head coach Matt Steinfeldt.
Lucero threw for three touchdowns and two interceptions in the game. He was also charged for a fumble on a backwards pass the fell incomplete. Manzano picked up the ball and returned it 20 yards to take possession.
The Tigers’ defense played a solid overall game when not backed up against the wall.
Aztec forced a three-and-out midway through the first quarter and the offense responded with a touchdown drive as Lucero found Cody Rinerson with a 25-yard touchdown pass.
Aztec’s defense recorded another stop on the next Manzano drive, but Aztec was forced to punt the ball away on the following possession.
Lucero hit a perfect punt to Manzano’s one-foot line, Rinerson wrapped up Manzano quarterback Angel Gonzales for a safety as Gonzales attempted a play-action pass from his own end zone.
Trailing just 14-8 in the first quarter, Aztec had life.
But Manzano quickly took it away.
The Tigers were setup on the Manzano 41-yard line after the free kick following the safety, but Lucero’s backward pass shifted all momentum back to the Monarchs.
Gonzales punched in a quarterback dive for a one-yard score, giving Manzano a 21-8 lead to take into halftime.
The Tigers defense forced another three-and-out coming out of halftime, but Lucero’s first of two interceptions gave the Monarchs momentum once again as they turned the turnover into another offensive touchdown drive.
“We had opportunities to close the gap, but the turnovers were too much of a problem,” Steinfeldt said.
Aztec scored two second-half touchdowns, one on a Lucero pass to Wyatt Schlueter and another to Ryneal Lewis-Adams.
The offensive line of Aztec had a tough time stopping the front-four of Manzano, and Lucero, who is still nursing a leg muscle injury, was under pressure most of the night.
“Adam moved well and made a big 30- or 40-yard run. He is coming along really well health wise and has played well,” Steinfeldt said. “Individually, we are seeing really big results for him. He is throwing it very well.”
Dropped balls also prevented Aztec from sustaining drives most of the night.
Brad Hardin was all over the field offensively and defensively Friday night.
But the non-stop intensity he and many other Aztec players bring to the field is starting to catch up to the youthful Tigers.
“Really what we need to do to get better through the course of the season is find some depth,” Steinfeldt said. “We have the same 12-13 guys playing both ways and they are wearing down after the first four games of the year.”
Aztec returns home to face Del Norte next Friday. Aztec will have a two-game home stand with St. Pius X visiting Oct. 12.
The Tigers will be happy to put the first four games of the season behind them and move forward toward District 1-4A games.
“When I walked in and saw that schedule, I knew there would be some tough games in there. That is what we have seen to this point,” said Steinfeldt. “It is forcing our young team to grow up quickly. We still believe we can improve each week and we will come out of this next chapter of games with a positive result.”