AZTEC — Dominated and damaged in the season opener against Los Lunas, the Aztec offensive line has been a work in progress all season.
Fourteen weeks later, the Tigers in the trenches have transformed into a group of mean maulers paving the way to big games for Aztec running backs.
“Nothing nice ever happens on the line,” said Aztec junior right guard Riley Quigley.
Now the No. 6 Tigers (8-4) are ready to see just how far the line has come since that disastrous season opener as No. 2 Los Lunas (11-0) returns to Fred Cook Memorial this Saturday. A trip to the state championship game is on the line.
But the line that will go against one of the best defenses in 4A this Saturday doesn't at all resemble the line that took the field in Week 1. Three new faces are in the starting lineup since that day.
The Tigers lost junior center Josh Hathcock on the first play against Los Lunas when he blew out a shoulder.
Aztec's offensive line was decimated in the game. Snaps flew of senior quarterback Adam Lucero's head and nothing could stop Los Lunas from penetrating the backfield en rout to a 50-28 win for Los Lunas in a game that was even more lopsided than the final score showed.
Aztec was trampled again a week later at No. 1 Goddard, a game that ended at halftime with Aztec failing to score a point as Lucero was hammered again before being sidelined with an injury.
Members of the Tigers knew a change had to be made, and Quigley and Conner Gaskins decided to leave their old positions to try and earn starting jobs on the line.
“It is kind of funny. After the Goddard game, Quigley was so pumped up and mad that he came up to me and got in my face and said, ‘Forget this, Adam. I'm going to be one of your starting linemen and get the job done so I don't have to watch you get killed anymore,'” Lucero said. “I didn't take him serious, but the next Monday at practice Riley was wrecking people and was starting guard. Gaskins followed his footsteps.
“When you play in the ‘Brotherhood,' you expect guys to step up, be unselfish and take on a job they're not familiar with, but as a sacrifice that will benefit the team. That is exactly what Quigley and Gaskins did. Yes they are undersized, but those are two of the meanest guys I know. They'll fly 100 miles per hour and knock you out. I am very proud of those two, and wouldn't have any other guards protecting me.”
Quigley turned his back on the running back position he had played his entire life. That Monday, he turned his No. 25 jersey in for No. 53.
“It was definitely a whole new experience. Going from running back my whole life to the line is a different world, but I do enjoy it,” he said. “Banging heads every play — the line is where the real men play. I've always heard that, but never actually knew it for myself until this year.”
Though the team as a whole has greatly benefited from the boys' decision to move to the line, Quigley admits it has been anything but painless for them.
“Head aches, broken toe nails after practices and games, it gets to you. But it is worth it in the end,” Quigley said. “I am glad I decided to make that decision, and I am sure Gaskins does as well, for it has helped a lot in the end.”
It certainly helped last Saturday at No. 3 Artesia, where Aztec defeated the Bulldogs at the Bulldog Bowl for the first time in school history. In the game, the line pushed Artesia back as the Tigers' running backs rushed for 347 yards.
It came just a week after putting up 221 yards on No. 11 Santa Fe.
Filling in for Hathcock this season has been Stalcup, who had a rough start in Week 1. Since then, Stalcup has rounded into form and has become a leader on the line, Lucero said.
“We knew going into the season that Hathcock was one of the better linemen in the state. His cousin, Mike, was an all-state running back, and his brother Jeremy was an all-state center, so that entire family is full of athletes,” Lucero said. “It is always tough when you lose a guy who is going to be a leader up front, but it is even harder replacing him. Stalcup has stepped up and become a better leader on that line than anyone expected.”
The two constants on the offensive line for Aztec have been the tackles, Joey Dotson on the left and Justin Slavey on the right.
Dotson, a senior leader on the team, has said all the credit goes to line coach Jose Santistevan.
“In my mind, he is the best line coach in the state,” Dotson said. “He has been behind me since freshman year, and we couldn't do it without him.”
While the line may have evolved the past 14 weeks, Gaskins said the team is just trying to continue the tradition that has been set by the lineman who have come before them in Aztec.
“The fact that we destroy people isn't new,” Gaskins said after the win in Artesia. “We've done it for years now, and we are preparing to impose our will on Los Lunas.”