STATE CHAMPS: Aztec wins first football title since 1953
AZTEC — All season there was one message coming out of the Aztec Tiger football players: This had to be the year. After waiting 58 years, 2011 is finally the year Aztec once again raised the state championship trophy.
No. 2 Aztec hosted No. 1 Goddard on Sunday in a clash of unbeaten 4A teams. Goddard was favored going into the game, and it looked like the Rockets would be bringing home their eighth state title as they led Aztec 21-12 going into the fourth quarter. But just as they did all season when behind, the Tigers were able to mount a comeback and win 28-27 in spectacular fashion to capture the team's second-ever state championship.
"We owe the Aztec community and coaches a lot more than just a state title, but this is great," said Aztec junior quarterback Adam Lucero, who was 18-24 passing for over 225 yards and a touchdown. "We expected to play Goddard all year for the state title and we beat them. The trophy is finally home. It has been over half a century and I just want to thank all the people and players on previous teams who helped us get here."
Thirty seconds into the fourth quarter Lucero ran for a 3-yard touchdown to cap off a 12-play, 64-yard drive. Aztec converted on a 2-point conversion to bring the score to within 21-20.
But Goddard answered back with a quick score following an Aztec onside kick attempt. Running back David Anaya scored his third touchdown of the game but Goddard incurred a false-start penalty on the extra point attempt, which was eventually narrowly missed to make the game 27-20 with just nine minutes left.
Aztec took the ball on its own 20-yard line needing a touchdown, and Lucero methodically moved the team down the field to get in position. There were big runs by Lucero as well as running backs Bryce Grady and Michael Perry, and one huge completion from Lucero to wide receiver Ty Atencio that helped get the Tigers rolling. With just 4:02 left in the game Perry carried the ball 9 yards for a touchdown to bring the Tigers to within one point.
Traditional thought would say go for the tie at home or the win on the road, but Aztec coach Brad Hirsch has never been one for conventional play-calling: He called a timeout to discuss going for the 2-point conversion and the lead.
Aztec spread the field and a lane opened up for Lucero to scramble to the right with the ball. With his preferred target, Atencio, covered, Lucero took off and leaped head first over crashing Goddard defenders and into the end zone. Aztec took the 28-27 lead and the Aztec faithful at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium were sent into a frenzy that lasted well through the trophy presentation.
"There was a lot going through our heads on that last drive, but we knew we had to score," Lucero said. "In film study on Friday afternoon we were talking about if we were down by seven points and we scored, would we want to go for two and the win or do we try to tie it up? It was history and it was meant for us to go for it there.
"Earlier on that drive I hurdled a guy on a run and they said I couldn't jump with my feet first, so I knew if I was going to jump in on the conversion it would be head-first. I did it to score a touchdown against Durango and I am just really proud of the team for creating the opportunity for me. The whole play was a lot of adrenaline and emotion. I would rather break my leg and win than not break it and lose. If I was going to break something on that play, I was going to break it, but it was going to be all or nothing to get those two points."
The conversion wouldn't have been there without a total team effort not only on that play, but also on Perry's touchdown to set it up.
"I saw a crease and our linemen did a hell of a job," Perry said. "It all came together right there and I had a little hole to perfectly squeeze in. It was awesome to score like that with absolutely everyone doing their job."
But Aztec still had to make one stop as Goddard had four minutes on the game clock. The Tigers knew they didn't want to score and leave Goddard enough time to let Anaya dictate another drive, and eventually Goddard did have to pass the ball with time ticking down.
After picking up a few first downs on the drive, it was time for Goddard senior quarterback Ryan Greene to pass, and the Aztec defense was ready. After stuffing Anaya on a 3rd-and-4 run, Grady knocked down a Greene pass on fourth down to give Aztec the ball back in position to knee the ball and watch the clock tick down.
"They were making some yards, but after Bryce Grady knocked that ball down I lost it," said Perry.
"We said defense would win the title and that is exactly what it did," Lucero added.
The Tigers defense knew going in they would have to some stops and when they needed it most Aztec rose to the occasion. The highlight of the scoreless first quarter came when junior defensive back Brad Hardin intercepted a Greene pass just in front of the end zone after Goddard opened the game moving the ball on the ground and through the air with ease.
"It was pretty surprising that they passed in that situation inside our 10-yard line when they have such a good running back in Anaya," Hardin said. "In the end we knew we would be in good shape if they had to throw. It was nerve-wracking on that last defensive stand, but everyone did their job and we finished it."
Anaya tormented the Aztec defense much of the game. He had 219 yards rushing to go with his three touchdowns, but 168 of those yards came in the first half. Aztec limited him to just 51 in the second half.
"We were trying to get back there and blow things up in the backfield and make Anaya bounce outside," said Aztec senior Mark Ritter.
"We knew the defense needed to make some adjustments on Anaya at half, but we knew what those were," said Perry. "We had no doubt at halftime down just 14-12 and coach just said the defense would have to make one stop and we would have to score twice. The defense made that stop when it counted."
Perry rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown. Despite being just a junior, Saturday's title game will be Perry's last as a Tiger as he will move to Texas to start the next semester in January.
"When I came into this year I didn't expect anything but leaving here with a title. We had been up at 5 a.m. working out with the team since last January. We only had three weeks off after losing state to Artesia last year, and I think we worked harder than anybody in the state. It showed.
"I like how all the media down south say Goddard and Artesia are so tough because they play 5A schools. We just beat a 4A school that everyone thought could hang out with the 5A guys. There is no better way to leave Aztec than doing that. Don't ever doubt the north."
Perry's counterpart in the backfield for the last two seasons, Grady had one rushing and one receiving touchdown in Saturday's title game to go along with the title-clinching pass deflection.
Surprisingly, Goddard held Atencio out of the end zone on Saturday, but the big-play receiver certainly made his presence felt throughout the game.
"I don't care what I did all year, winning this game is all that mattered," Atencio said. "This is how you get remembered and this is for everybody."
Since beating Ft. Sumner in 1953, Aztec had been to 10 title games but came up short in all of them, including four under coach Hirsch.
After coming up short in Artesia with a talented group in 2010, the 2011 team was determined to get Hirsch and this group of seniors a blue trophy, but several players said they were also playing for the seniors on last year's team who never got to taste the title.
"I can't say enough about guys like Brycson King. He meant so much in my career, and this is half his win," said Lucero of the former Aztec quarterback.
Rumors have circled all year as to the future of Hirsch as the Tigers' coach, with college coaching positions potentially calling his name. While his future will likely be decided in the coming weeks, the Aztec players know the program and tradition will carry on as strong as ever.
"I am not sure what will happen, but I know with guys like Hardin, Andrew Pope, Joey Dotson, Rip Watkins and guys below us will step up," Lucero said. "Whatever happens next year we will play good football and go after title No. 3."
"Everyone is graduating it seems like," Hardin said. "We did this for all of the seniors and the hard work they have done, and I feel like if we keep our work ethic up and get up every morning we will come back no matter what."