AZTEC — After a season and career full of heroic moments, the well finally went dry for Aztec and its senior quarterback Adam Lucero.
Trailing No. 2 Los Lunas 18-0 after the first half of a 4A state semifinal football game, No. 6 Aztec mounted a furious comeback. Sparked by a Cody Rinerson interception, Aztec scored 20 unanswered points to claim a two-point advantage in the fourth quarter at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium.
But Los Lunas answered with a quick touchdown after Aztec had taken the lead, and the Los Lunas defense was able to keep Lucero's Tigers out of the end zone on two consecutive drives as Los Lunas took a 24-20 victory to earn a spot in the 4A state championship game against No. 1 Goddard.
“We put everything on the line. We came up a little bit short, but I think our kids will be better for the adversities they have seen this year,” said Aztec first-year head coach Matt Steinfeldt said.
Los Lunas came out of the gates firing on defense, holding Aztec to just 76 yards of total offense in the first half while racking up 244 yards of their own behind senior quarterback Chris Wisnewski.
Wisnewski hit Chris Sanchez on a 21-yard touchdown pass just six seconds into the second quarter for the game's first score.
On the next Los Lunas drive, Jalen Chavez broke a 69-yard touchdown run to extend the lead to 12-0.
Twelve seconds later, Lucero was intercepted by Los Lunas' Eddie Canizo, giving Los Lunas the ball on the Aztec 27-yard line.
Five plays later, Los Lunas was in the end zone again, this time on a Darron Gallegos six-yard run.
Aztec drove down the field and tried to score before the end of the half, but a key drop by Brad Hardin on fourth down brought an end to the drive, and Los Lunas sat on the ball to get to halftime.
Trailing 18-0 against one of the best defenses in the state, some Aztec players even thought the game was out of reach as they jogged into the locker room.
But Aztec's three senior leaders, Lucero, Hardin and Joey Dotson, rallied the troops at the half, and the coaching staff made key adjustments that helped Aztec find some offensive rhythm in the second half.
“I went into the locker room and told the guy, ‘Nothing else matters but what is in this locker room right now. The stands can think it is over, our families or whoever, but we need to come out fired up.' I don't know who the kids were that were doubting, but our leaders took over and told the guys it wasn't over,” Lucero said. “We never stopped playing once in our lives, and we weren't going to stop then.”
Rinerson was able to intercept a Wisnewski pass on the opening drive of the second half, and three plays later, Lucero hit Braden Goimarac on a 49-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 18-7 with 9:32 to play in the third quarter.
Wisnewski was intercepted again as a screen pass was tipped in the air. After being juggled around by a few players, Dotson came down with the ball.
It was Dotson's second forced turnover of the game after hitting Wisnewski with a blind side sack earlier in the game that forced a fumble Brett Donaldson was able to fall on.
Aztec drove down the field, but faced a 4th-and-10 situation on the Los Lunas 16-yard line after a third-down pass went through the hands of Rinerson near the goal line.
But Rinerson made up for the drop when he took a quick pass from Lucero into the end zone on fourth down.
“Rinerson made a huge contribution with the interception and then the touchdown catch,” Steinfeldt said. “Our guys get it in their mind they are going to do something special, and they go do it.”
Aztec went into the fourth quarter trailing just 18-14, and the Aztec faithful were on the edge of their seats knowing one the state's best clutch players, Lucero, was on their sideline.
“Getting back into the game was a testament to guys like Lucero and Hardin. At times in this season, they just willed things to happen,” Steinfeldt said.
Aztec's defense came back onto the field with more energy each time Aztec found the end zone on offense, and the defense did everything it could to get the ball back in Lucero's hands as quickly as possible.
With just eight minutes left in the game, Lucero hit Hardin on a 32-yard touchdown pass to complete an eight-play, 65-yard drive.
The score gave Aztec its first lead of the game at 20-18 after the extra point went just wide.
But on the ensuing Los Lunas possession, Chavez and Wisnewski ran the ball down Aztec's throat for 67 yards.
Gallegos was able to score from one-yard out to give Los Lunas a 24-20 lead that stood up as the final.
“Our leaders stepped up. We managed to have a good drive right there and it ended up being the winner for us,” said Los Lunas head coach Jeremy Newton. “The whole team stepped up. Wisnewski had some rough times out there, but the whole team kept picking him up and the guys did a great job in the fourth quarter.”
Aztec drove down the field on the ensuing drive, but a big holding call forced a 3rd-and-20 and 4th-and-20 situation.
Lucero was threw up a hail mary on fourth down, and the ball wobbled in the air as he was pressured before releasing it. The pass was intercepted by Jacob Holland, and Los Lunas took over the ball with 2:05 to play.
Aztec stopped Los Lunas on three-consecutive plays to force a punt with 1:11 to play.
Punt returner Ryneal Lewis-Adams let a short but high-flying punt fall to the ground instead of trying to fair catch it under pressure, and the ball took a Los Lunas bounce all the way down inside Aztec's eight-yard line.
Lucero drove the Tigers down the field again, but was unable to connect with a receiver on one last miracle pass with four seconds left in the game from the Los Lunas 31-yard line.
The ball fell just out of the back of the end zone, and Los Lunas was able to celebrate its first trip to the state championship game.
It was Los Lunas' first appearance in the state semifinals since it began playing in 1953.
“The funny thing is, I was here in 2009 when Aztec played Belen in the quarters, and I was here last year when Aztec beat Goddard in the state championship,” Newton said. “Being here on the field, it is a great experience. Aztec always plays great in the playoffs, and they did again today. It was a great game.”
Lucero finished the game 21-49 passing for 254 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
“We just wanted to pressure Lucero because he is so good if he has time,” Newton said. “We knew we couldn't completely shut him down, because that is impossible.”
Wisnewski was 9-17 through the air for 134 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Los Lunas dominated on the ground, rushing for 231 yards on 49 carries in the game.
Aztec's run game was bottled up, going for just 86 yards on 21 attempts.
“The physicality that coach Newton preaches over there was demonstrated on the field. They are great using their hands on the line and they are great in space. They were always in the right position,” Steinfeldt said. “Their scheme makes them successful, and they created havoc for us offensively. We made some adjustments for that in the second half, and we were able to find more time to throw because of those adjustments.”
After the game, Los Lunas won a coin toss and the right to host the 4A state championship game next weekend against Goddard.
“Adversity makes teams better, and we saw that today. We overcame it, and it will make us better going into next week,” Newton said. “It has been a great ride so far, and we have one more week to go. It is going to be a lot of fun.”
Lucero said he won't be rooting for either team next week, but he credited Los Lunas for a great performance Saturday.
When the game clock hit zero, it also signaled the end of an era for Aztec football with Lucero exiting the field for the last time.
“It is gut-wrenching watching him walk off when you know there is still a week left to play,” Steinfeldt said. “I have had the pleasure of watching Adam the last two years, first as a college coach and then as his head coach. He is an outstanding football player and competitor. His athleticism will carry over and he will be very successful at the college level. He is a great leader, and that was demonstrated through all the clutch plays he has made.”
Lucero wanted to walk off the field for the last time in Roswell in the state title game, but he said there were no regrets about having it end on his home field after another thrilling game.
“It is something you always remember, whether you win or lose. These are great games. Aztec always brings the 12th man, and the fans came though for us,” Lucero said. “I am very proud to be a part of the ‘Brotherhood.' I've got to play on the same teams as some of my heroes like Brycson King and Riley Hegarty and my brother Jordan. I've never been in a game less than the semifinals and I am a four-time district champion. And I have a state ring.
“I am proud of my team this year and all of my past teammates. I am proud of this community. Very proud. It is hard to turn your pads in when you are a part of something as special as the ‘Brotherhood,' but I am turning them in proud.”
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