LAS VEGAS, N.M. — How well did the Huskies of Albuquerque Hope Christian know their enemy on Saturday afternoon?
Well, some of them sang the words to Las Vegas Robertson’s fight song that its band played as the teams headed to the locker room at the half of their Class 3A semifinal football game at Cardinals Field. It wasn’t that Hope Christian was that thorough in its preparation for the Cardinals, which resulted in a convincing 36-0 win and halted the host team’s attempt to reach its fifth straight state championship game. The win also ensured the Huskies’ first appearance in a championship game in their 10-year history.
It was just that the second-seeded Huskies heard the song so much during the week of practice that they could sing it as loudly and proudly as the Cardinals’ faithful.
“We knew it pretty well,” said Blane Miller, Hope Christian’s senior running back/linebacker.
If anything, that underscored the Huskies’ focus for this game. Last year, they entertained Robertson at Milne Stadium in the semifinals with a perfect record and the top seed in the playoffs under their belt. What they didn’t have was the confidence to go with the swagger, and Robertson stole a 25-17 win.
This time, Hope Christian (10-2) kept the swagger under wraps and simply played smash-mouth football that the No. 3 Cardinals (10-2) had to respect, if not admire.
“They shut us down,” Robertson head coach Leroy Gonzalez said. “Offensively, they shut us down. There is nothing more you can say about that. Hope just came out and played a football game. They sure did.”
Usually, the opening offensive play of the game rarely portends the outcome, but it did in this case. When Cardinals quarterback Matthew Gonzales fumbled on his team’s first play from scrimmage, Hope’s Jarod Knowles gobbled it up at the Robertson 20-yard line.
The Huskies then went about doing to Robertson what the Cardinals did to them a year earlier. They played against their type of a finesse, pass-first team and ran the ball four of their first five plays. Facing a fourth-and-goal at the Cardinals 3, Hope Christian decided it was time to puncture the perimeter of the field with Miller. He took a pitch right past Cardinals cornerback Andres Grano for a 3-yard touchdown run to open the scoring with 10:35 left in the opening quarter.
Gary Beck, the Huskies head coach, said the play exorcised some demons from the previous matchup, when Hope couldn’t punch the ball in from inside the Robertson 5 in the fourth quarter.
“We had a first-and-goal at the 1, and we could not punch it in,” Beck recalled. “I was on the headset with the [offensive coordinator on Saturday], and I said, ‘Go to the outside. Let’s run to the outside with that full-house backfield and we gotta punch it in.’ Otherwise, we’re doomed to repeat ourselves.”
Meanwhile, Robertson was doomed to repeat itself to start the third quarter with a special teams breakdown on the kickoff. Isaiah Trujillo found a seam, brushed off an arm tackle and swiftly outran the Cardinals for an 88-yard touchdown to make it 19-0 just 13 seconds into the third quarter.
“The coaches told us in the locker that they’re going to come out amped up and pumped,” Miller said. “You got to keep the intensity up.”
And it never waned. The Cardinals managed just 60 yards on the ground and 136 yards of total offense. Forced to throw the ball in the second half, the duo of Gonzales and Antonio Padilla combined to connect on just seven of 20 attempts for 76 yards and three second-half interceptions.
Add to that a pair of blocked punts after the break and a safety in the second quarter, and Robertson was flummoxed.
“It seemed like our defense was on the field more than double [the time] to our offense,” Gonzalez said. “We had trouble with the ball, but that is not our style, with the quick strike. I give all the credit to coach Beck and the players. They wanted it more than we did. That’s the way it seemed.”
The drive that punctuated the afternoon came after the Cardinals’ best chance at putting points on the scoreboard. With Hope leading 26-0 in the third quarter, Padilla connected on three of his first four passes and moved Robertson to the Hope Christian 15. His fifth pass, however, sailed high and safety James Jenkins leaped for it and hauled it in at the Huskies’ 4 at the six-minute mark.
Hope Christian eschewed its normal spread attack for a wishbone formation and proceeded to drive 78 yards in 17 plays that chewed up 8:18. While it resulted in a 33-yard field goal for Trujillo, the score was 29-0 with 8:42 left, and the Huskies message had been delivered.
Collin Evans, Hope Christian’s senior quarterback, said it put to rest the notion that the Huskies are a finesse squad. On a day in which he completed just nine of 25 passes for 136 yards, Evans was more than happy to hand the baton — and the football — to the running backs.
“It’s a good chip on our shoulder when you say we’re a finesse team, and we got big boys all over the line,” Evans said. “I think we had that chip on our shoulder to prove everyone wrong.”
And a year after Robertson punched them in the mouth, the Huskies showed they learned well from the master.
They can carry a tune, to boot.