No. 2 Aztec wasn't able to repeat as 4A state champions, but finishing in the state semifinals with a 24-20 loss to undefeated and No. 2-ranked Los Lunas was surely something to celebrate after everything the team went through, including the death of a teammate and friend, Andrew Pope, just weeks before the first game of the season.
“It has been an interesting year. Our kids have done a great job over the course of the year understanding what life deals them,” said Aztec head coach Matt Steinfeldt. “We have seen great adversity that our kids are better people for. I am very proud of the young men that have come through this program this year. We had some struggles, but we learned how to fight through those struggles, and we played pretty good football.”
Fresh off of the school's first football state championship since 1953, former head coach Brad Hirsch walked away from the program. By the end of February, Steinfeldt was hired from Fort Lewis College in Durango.
Folks across Aztec quickly began asking questions about why Steinfeldt was hired.
After losing 50-28 in Week 1 to Los Lunas and 63-0 to No. 1 Goddard in Week 2, those with questions about Steinfeldt only got louder, and more began to have questions of their own.
But after scrapping to a District 1-4A title for the sixth consecutive season and winning in Artesia's Bulldog Bowl for the first time in school history — in the state quarterfinals no less — it was safe to say Steinfeldt had given an answer.
“This is a community that loves their football team. Everyone is extremely excited about winning games here,” Steinfeldt said. “They have high expectations, and they should. As a coach, that is something you should always search for. You want those expectations yourself, and you want to meet those. I have enjoyed the experience.”
Aztec senior quarterback Adam Lucero was the first to admit it was hard to adapt to a new coach after winning a title, but after eight months of work and a 14-week season, Lucero said he was proud to call Steinfeldt his coach.
“It is tough getting a new head coach, man. When you have a coach like Steinfeldt come in and totally change the face of the program, it made us better football players and better kids,” Lucero said. “It took awhile for everyone to buy into his system but, when we did, we became a really dangerous team. I have to give it to coach. He deserves a state title after the pressure he endured, and he did very well.”
One of the biggest footprints Steinfeldt left in his first season was the manner in which Aztec carried itself on the field. Personal foul penalties came few and far between, a stark contrast to the Hirsch era.
“He has done a lot of awesome things. Being the person he is, we have definitely changed as kids,” Lucero said. “We have become more classy. We aren't as dirty. He changed things with a tremendous amount of pressure on him.”
Though the team's losses early in the season strengthened the divide between Steinfeld supporters and detractors, the team continued to come together as they grieved the loss of Pope.
As wins finally amassed, confidence grew until Aztec and its faithful were back in state championship form last weekend.
After the defeat, the community embraced their heroes on the field, including Steinfeldt, who said he is happy he accepted the head coaching position.
“This season gave me a chance as an individual to overcome some adversity. I think there were a lot of people who questioned the way we were doing things early because of the wins and losses,” Steinfeldt said. “I think those people within the program that spend a lot of time with us know what we are about and know we are working very hard, and that sometimes there will be bumps in the road, but we have a good plan to navigate that.”
Steinfeldt heads into his first full offseason with Aztec with big goals in mind. Next season's group will return more starters with even more experience, and the boys will have a full year to become acquainted with the playbook.
But replacing Lucero, an all-state defensive back and state championship winning quarterback, won't be an easy task.
“I think everyone, including myself, needs to identify who our quarterback is going to be,” Steinfeldt said. “We have Marcus Crawford in the program. He is a young guy without a lot of experience. Over the course of the summer, we need to make sure he, or whoever our guy is going to be next year, gets in some seven on seven's so they at least have that experience. Having a guy like Ryneal Lewis-Adams coming back is going to help us be a slightly different team as long as we can continue to run the football.”
If Crawford is the one taking snaps next season, Lucero has full confidence he can carry on the tradition of great Aztec quarterbacks.
“I expect huge things from Crawford. He has worked his butt off day by day, and he is one of the hardest workers I know,” Lucero said. “He fits the quarterback position, and he has a great family behind him. He will step it up and lead this team, and I have tremendous respect for him.”
After the loss to Los Lunas on Saturday, Lucero was the last player to leave the turf at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium. Scattered among a few coaches, trainers and stadium workers, Lucero could be seen kneeling in prayer at midfield.
It was a gut-wrenching sight for any Aztec fan, and those who have had the pleasure of interacting with such a high-character athlete over the course of his high school career.
Brycson King was a superstar in Aztec, but Lucero became a legend for his Superman dive over the goal line that gave Aztec a state championship among all the countless miraculous comeback drives he led in three years as Aztec's quarterback.
It is safe to say, that legend will never die, and Lucero also knows football will never quite be the same as it was in the ‘Brotherhood,' even if his Division I dream is realized.
Like all the other great Aztec football alumni, Lucero will have a close eye on the next generation of Tigers.
“I have no regrets. I have a lot of good memories in this program. A lot of mornings, I woke up and watched the sunrise with my teammates and, a lot of nights, I watched the sunset with my teammates on the field,” Lucero said. “I wish we could've ended it with another ring but, hey, I got one. We ended the drought for Aztec, and I think it is over forever. There have been a lot of great memories, and I just want to thank the community and everyone who
has been involved.
“Aztec is going to keep playing. We never rebuild, we reload. It started off tough this year for us but we got there. Next year, you are going to see Lewis-Adams, Braden Goimarac and Riley Quigley lead this team, and they are going to go get a ring for themselves.”