Football travel expenses this postseason may lead to changes down the road
FARMINGTON — The subject of teams traveling during the high school football postseason isn't unique. Every year, there's always one or two teams that have to make unbearably long trips from one end of the state to the other.
This time around it seems a little more difficult for some teams to make that trip, which has renewed talk of perhaps rewriting the rules regarding travel during the state football championships.
The burden of travel has brought unintended consequences this year due to the increased costs involved in traveling — primarily soaring gas prices — in addition to recently mandated pandemic-related restrictions on unvaccinated players and coaches occupying hotel rooms.
Some districts simply can't afford the expense of an overnight stay at hotels, particularly when additional accommodations have to be made for those who cannot stay in rooms with one another.
Santa Teresa High School's football team, which made the long trip to Farmington High last week for their Class 5A quarterfinal match, drove up the morning of their game last Friday, and left for home shortly after their 28-6 loss to the Scorpions. The bus in which the team arrived didn't park at Hutchison Stadium until approximately two hours before the start of the game. The team traveled over 900 miles by bus and played a football game in the span of more than 24 hours.
"If that had been our district making those kinds of requirements or demands, I'd have been out of there that same day," said Farmington head coach Jeff Dalton. "Not being able to afford hotel rooms is not a good enough reason. You find a booster or someone and get it paid for."
Athletic budgets in some cases have been stretched thin of late due to restrictions regarding accommodations for students and staffs on these road trips.
The New Mexico Activities Association's recently updated handbook on Guidelines for Participation state that unvaccinated individuals shall not share sleeping quarters. These guidelines were updated in accordance with the state's Department of Health and the Public Education Department.
Aztec High School's football team, which traveled nearly 720 miles to and from Ruidoso for a first round playoff game earlier this month, reserved more than 40 rooms for the overnight stay. Athletic director Bryan Sanders estimated the trip cost more than $8,000.
Who goes where and when?
The current rules regarding deciding home and away teams in the semifinal and championship games for the state football championship are fairly simple.
If the two teams have never played in a semifinal or championship game in the past, the higher seed hosts. If the two teams have played in a semifinal or championship game in the past, the team which hosted the prior matchup goes on the road regardless of seeding in the tournament.
In 2017, fourth-seeded Farmington played host to top-ranked Artesia in the Class 5A semifinals. Artesia won that game 47-22 and then went on to win the state championship, beating Belen 48-14.
Which brings us to this weekend, when top-seeded Farmington makes the 426-mile trip from Hutchison Stadium to the Bulldog Bowl in Artesia for one of two Class 5A semifinal games, both of which will be played on Saturday.
"These rules have been in place for a little while now, and as a coach you know what the rules are going in and make plans accordingly," said Dalton. "In the span of every four or five years, the same teams are in this position in the semifinals and finals. If it went by higher seed, it would seem fair also, but we know the rules and how it works, I think coaches that are consistently in this position are fine with it."
Meet in the middle
The discussion surrounding travel for football games came in the spotlight recently when the abbreviated high school season last spring culminated when bowl games – five played at University Stadium in Albuquerque — were held because there was no state championship tournament.
Bloomfield played against Lovington last season at University Stadium and lost their finale 37-19. Farmington tackled Mayfield last season at University Stadium and hammered the Trojans by a final of 48-28.
With championships decided at neutral sites in more than a half-dozen sports, primarily in and around Albuquerque, why can't the same be done for football?
"Any decision made in regards to the state playoffs, it is made with the support of our membership," said NMAA executive director Dusty Young. "At this point in time, our schools have not wanted to centralize our state football championships."
With more than 160 NMAA-member schools in the state, the needs of one district as opposed to another and the financial means to achieve those needs are likely going to be different. One school's football team might want the opportunity to play in front of a large crowd in a big stadium where another might benefit more by hosting a playoff game on their own field.
"I can tell you, it was exciting to play that bowl game at UNM last spring," Dalton said. "But it didn't have the same appeal or feel of a high school stadium charged up with its hometown fans and all the buildup that comes with that."
Ruidoso, will visit Bloomfield this Saturday for the Class 4A semifinals, and will make the 350-mile trek early that morning for the 3 p.m. kickoff, according to head coach Kief Johnson.
"Not only am I the one calling the plays, but I'm also the one driving the bus," said Johnson. "We don't have enough drivers and we have people who don't want to work.
"It's a tough call but there's no reason we can't play these types of games in a neutral site," Johnson said. "We played St. Pius last week at Nusenda Stadium in Albuquerque and the kids got a real thrill playing in a big time facility like that."
Jeremy Maupin, first year head coach of the Artesia Bulldogs and starting quarterback for the team when they won a state championship in 2004, isn't interested in changing the current format.
Before taking over the head coaching position at Artesia, Maupin led the Los Lunas Tigers to back-to-back state title appearances in 2018 and 2019. Los Lunas lost both times to Roswell, at the Wool Bowl in 2018 and at Los Lunas High School the following year.
"Honestly, as a player and a coach, I love traveling. There's something about rolling into someone else's home field and hearing their crowd," Maupin said. "I always felt like there's no way we're going to fill up a large stadium and it won't have the same atmosphere of a smaller stadium."
Size does matter
In a state the size of New Mexico, there are logistical problems with the scenario of one central site for a championship game.
"It wouldn't make sense for two teams located close to each other in one part of the state to make the trip to Albuquerque," said author and New Mexico football historian Dan Ford. "If you lived in Roswell and they're playing against Goddard for the championship, why should the teams and their fans have to travel to Albuquerque for that game?"
The time of year also becomes a problem. When University Stadium hosted the bowl games this spring, there were no college football games being played there. That's not the case this time of year, as the University of New Mexico wraps up their regular season at home on Friday, Nov. 26, the same weekend the high school championships are scheduled.
In the state of Colorado however, championship games for the state's two biggest classifications, 4A and 5A, will be played once again at the home of the Denver Broncos.
"Championship Saturday" will see a pair of games played at Empower Field at Mile High on Saturday, Dec. 4.
In a statement released last month, the Colorado High School Activities Association said this is the 16th year both of the state’s big school title games will take place at the home of the Broncos. The championship games were held in Pueblo in 2020.
No system is fool proof, and it's very likely there is not one answer which will satisfy those on either side of the debate.
"I can see the benefits of playing in one neutral site," Dalton said. "But I can also see more benefits in a town and a community really welcoming the importance of a big event like a state championship game."
The Farmington game at Artesia kicks off Saturday at 1 p.m. and can be heard live on KENN AM-1390 and 92.1FM.
Should Farmington be victorious over Artesia, the Scorpions would play for the 5A state title either at home against Los Lunas or on the road against Goddard on Thanksgiving weekend.
Despite being the top seed in the bracket, Farmington would travel to Goddard because the Scorpions hosted Goddard in the 2013 Class 5A championship, which the Scorpions won by a final of 7-0.
The Bloomfield vs. Ruidoso game at Bobcat Stadium gets underway Saturday at 3 p.m. and will air live on KRWN 92.5FM.
Bloomfield, should they win their semifinal game on Saturday at home over Ruidoso, will play for the Class 4A title next weekend either at home against Moriarty or on the road at Lovington.
Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at SBortstein@Gannett.com, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680.