LAS VEGAS, N.M. — The past four months were the preamble to the Las Vegas Robertson football team’s season.
In what seems like a rite of passage for one of the premier programs in the state, the Cardinals find themselves on the cusp of yet another state championship appearance. Robertson, the third seed in the Class 3A state playoffs, takes on No. 2 Albuquerque Hope Christian at Cardinals Field at 1 p.m. Saturday with a chance to play in its fifth straight title game and the sixth in the last seven seasons.
While the major storyline involves the Huskies trying to gain a measure of revenge against the Cardinals, who beat them 25-17 in the semifinals last November in Albuquerque, what can’t be overlooked is the sustained success of Robertson under head coach Leroy Gonzalez.
Robertson won a state title (in 2013) and made the championship game five times in Gonzalez’s 10 years as head coach. Add to that his five-year stint as Cardinals defensive coordinator from 2003-07, and Gonzalez has been a part of three state championship teams and five runner-up finishes.
“We’ve prepared for this since two-a-days,” Cardinals sophomore quarterback Matthew Gonzales said. “Coach said, ‘We’re always preparing for that last game in December.’ All of our games lead up to this part of the year.”
That is always the case at Robertson, even as seniors graduate and an influx of new talent comes in from Memorial Middle School. Gonzalez said that while the coaches might receive a lot of credit for the Cardinals’ excellence, he said that he has far less to do with it than it appears.
“We, as coaches, have never scored a touchdown, or made a tackle in the last 10 years,” Gonzalez said. “But we’ve had a run of really good kids coming through here.”
Gonzales embodies Gonzalez’s claim. He was a starter as a freshman and moved into the quarterback spot this season to replace Brandon Lucero when he graduated. Gonzales also happens to be third brother to come through the program under Gonzalez, after older brothers James (2010-13) and Sebastian (2012-15).
The younger Gonzales has his imprints all over this year’s team. He has thrown for 1,208 yards and run for another 954. In last week’s 14-7 win over West Las Vegas, Gonzales — who plays different positions, too — had a 65-yard touchdown catch and a 40-yard touchdown run that broke a 7-7 tie in the fourth quarter.
Gonzales, though, credits the coaching staff for its ability to prepare and use the talent it has. Of course, it goes hand-in-hand as Gonzalez said his team eats up the game plan and film breakdowns throughout the week, thanks to the online software Hudl. It is a program that allows coaches to upload game film for their players to study in their free time. The Cardinals coaches can view how much time their players spend on it, and sometimes that becomes a competition.
“Everybody tries to beat everybody on how long they’re on a video,” Gonzalez said. “Just know your opponent and the guy lining up in front of you, know his tendencies. Any little trick helps.”
There is no trick or secret to Robertson’s success, though. Gonzalez’s game plan revolves around a ground game that is averaging 218.8 yards per game and a hard-hitting defense that has allowed just two touchdowns in the past month. Gonzalez wants to limit the amount of possessions an opponent has and shorten the game.
It’s a recipe that has been quite fruitful during his tenure.
“We are going to make that clock run, and hopefully that comes to our favor,” Gonzalez said. “We have some players where, if we need to score quick, we can, but this is what we like to do. And it’s what I like to do — eat up the clock and get first downs.”
Oh, and strike first. In last year’s 25-17 win over Hope Christian when it was the top seed in the playoffs, Robertson went against type and attacked the Huskies via the air. Antonio Padilla scored on a 55-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive and Lucero threw for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the first half before the rushing attack awakened in the second half to preserve the win.
Don’t expect Robertson to be surprised by a hungry and vengeful group of Huskies showing up at Cardinal Field.
“I’m aware of that, but I’m just really focused on the game,” Gonzales said. “Last year, we went over there to Albuquerque and hit them in their mouth, and I feel like they are going to come in with that same mentality. I hope we can do it again, what we did last year.”
This is what the last four months were for — to prepare for this moment.
Hope Christian is slight favorite
Class 3A playoffs
Who: No. 2 Abq. Hope Christian at No. 3 Las Vegas Robertson
Where: Cardinals Field, Las Vegas, N.M.
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
How they got here: Robertson (10-1) beat No. 6 West Las Vegas, 14-7, in the quarterfinals Nov. 16. Hope Christian (9-2) beat No. 10 Cobre, 61-7, in the quarterfinals Nov. 16.
Overview: This looks like a mirror image of Robertson’s matchup against the Dons last week, just insert the Huskies’ name instead. And replace Collin Evans for John Balizan as the quarterback to watch for the Cardinals. Evans has thrown for 2,158 yards and 27 touchdowns to pilot the high-flying, Hope Christian spread attack. The Huskies also have a thumper to loosen up defenses in 6-foot-1, 180-pound running back Blane Miller, but their primary mode of advancing the ball is through the air.
Contrast that with the Cardinals, who average almost 200 yards on the ground per game. While quarterback Matthew Gonzales is the main running cog, Robertson also has Sebastian Gonzales (no relation) and his 815 rushing yards to keep defenses honest. Add to that the versatile skills of Antonio Padilla, who has run, caught and thrown for 20 touchdowns on the season.
Again, it will come down to defense, and Robertson has been stingy since the start of District 2-3A play in October. The Cardinals have allowed just 34 points over the last five games and 20 of those came against Santa Fe Indian School. Hope has been even tougher, as it strung together five straight shutouts before giving up a touchdown to Cobre last week.
The favorite: Hope Christian by 3.
Why: The Huskies have a thirst for revenge after last year’s surprising 25-17 semifinal loss to the Cardinals when Hope Christian was the top seed. If they can jump out early and make Robertson come out of its run-dominant shell, it could be a long day for the hosts in the Meadow City.