LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Just call it the Cardinal Rule.
No matter the circumstances with the Las Vegas Robertson football program, it almost always finds its way to the last game of the year. It has been the case for five of the last six Decembers, and the last four state championship games. In fact, Robertson has played for the blue trophy in eight of the last 14 seasons. Only Las Cruces Mayfield can match that output in that span, and the Trojans haven’t been to a championship game since 2014.
Perhaps it has something to do with Robertson’s head coach, Leroy Gonzalez. He enters his 10th year as the coach and spent 18 of the past 19 seasons roaming the sidelines at Cardinal Field. His philosophy of a ball-control offense and a physical defense has become Robertson’s trademark.
“To keep it going is a tribute to the coaches and just our program in how it evolves,” Gonzalez said.
The only downside to the Cardinals’ success has been the end result. Robertson has brought home a runner-up red trophy in each of the past four years. Last year, five turnovers proved to be the downfall for the Cardinals as Dexter beat them, 22-12, in the 3A championship game. The struggle to finish off a season with a state title keeps Robertson hungry to change its luck.
“Losing those games make us want to get back there even more,” senior Antonio Padilla said. “We want to do more and to strive to do our best and get there and actually win it.”
If the Cardinals are to get a fifth consecutive shot at the title, Padilla will play a big role regardless of where he plays. Last year, he was a running back and receiver, recording more than 1,500 yards.
This year, Padilla might play quarterback. He is in a battle with sophomore Matthew Gonzales and freshman Ace Gonzalez, the coach’s son, to determine who will run the offense. Gonzales also splits time at receiver, while Ace Gonzalez moves between varsity and junior varsity.
Padilla is relishing the change.
“Whenever you get to learn more, it’s always great,” Padilla said. “You can help others learn from you or you can even learn with them.”
But it’s also a part of how Robertson does things. With a roster size that generally stays in the low- to mid-30s, the roles the players fill often change depending on where the holes develop. Quarterback as well as the offensive and defensive lines were the weak links going into the season, but Leroy Gonzalez is feeling more confident in those areas.
“We always lose some guys, and this year we’re losing more than we have in the past,” coach Gonzalez said. “But it’s not like an 11-[player] type of deal. It can hurt us and sometimes help us that we don’t lose that many guys.”
The find of this offseason was freshman Body Schlinger, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound lineman who already caught the coaching staff’s eye.
With the Cardinals needing to fill a couple of spots, Schlinger will be a welcome addition to a line led by senior tackle Mackenzie Ebell.
“I have to give credit to our coaches,” Ebell said. “They try to get everyone ready for varsity, not just the juniors and seniors. Everyone should be ready to play.”
If the line is capable of opening holes in the running game, it will allow the Cardinals to use a strong group of skill players. Padilla will get plenty of touches regardless of his position, while leading rusher Santiago Gonzales, who is not related to Matthew Gonzales, also returns. In all, four of the five top rushers from last season return for the Cardinals.
If the rushing attack holds true to form, it opens the passing game for big plays. Robertson’s run to last year’s 3A championship game was fueled by big plays as defenses were caught creeping into the box.
“Running the ball is huge, especially at the end of the year,” coach Gonzalez said. “Even if it’s just two yards, three yards. Sometimes you have to go for it on fourth down. If we’re going for it on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2, it’s better than fourth-and-7 and fourth-and-8. “
What would be better than that is if those situations end up leading to a blue trophy.
Of course, the challenge is to get to the championship game, but Robertson always seems to find a way to get there.