It might be year three in rebuilding football at New Mexico School for the Deaf, but it’s year two of a feeder program that can be the lifeblood for the sport.
For the first time in several seasons, the Roadrunners will benefit from incoming freshmen and eighth graders who have a basic understanding of the sport thanks to the school’s flag football program, which is in its second year and helps middle school aged players learn how to play the sport. It beats the recent trend of trying to balance teaching inexperienced players, some of whom have never played the sport, while coaching the rest of the team.
The 2019 edition at NMSD is only 12 players strong, but that dozen has experience. It’s a big distinction to NMSD head coach James Litchfield III.
“I have noticed they are better, especially with their footwork,” Litchfield said through an interpreter of the new crop of four freshmen and one eighth grader to the roster. “They move better. They have more confidence in their skills, and I think once they feel ready and confident, they can move into more of the football stuff.”
It’s one more step in trying to get the program back on its feet after canceling the 2016 season because of a lack of players. NMSD went 5-1 as an independent last season, playing mostly deaf school teams. Still, it was the program’s best season since going 9-2 in 2012 and reaching the 6-man semifinals. The Roadrunners mostly struggled since then, but there is hope that they might rejoin a district and compete for a spot in the state playoffs. Litchfield said it could be as soon as 2020, but feels much more confident that the program could move into district play within three years.
That is appetizing to sophomore quarterback Bruce Brewer Jr., who already knows what it’s like to compete in the postseason. He was the starting point guard on the basketball team the past two seasons as NMSD won consecutive district titles for the first time and reached the Class 1A quarterfinals in March. Brewer would like his football brethren to know the same feeling.
“I’d love to compete against other New Mexico schools and see who is best,” Brewer Jr. said through an interpreter. “It would be fun. [The postseason] is a highly competitive level and I really like that. I want football to get to that same level.”
For now, the Roadrunners will continue on the long, deliberate road to recovery. Because of some changes to the schedule, NMSD will only play five games and its season won’t officially kick off until the home opener against Iowa School for the Deaf on Sept. 14. Litchfield said the month-long wait will give him a chance to get the Roadrunners into the weight room as well as onto the field. The weight room aspect is crucial because several of the players live too far away from the Santa Fe boarding school to organize a summer workout schedule.
“This gives us time to jell as a team,” Litchfield said.
And the Roadrunners could use that extra time to prepare. Brewer and senior running back Julio Portillo have yet to get their physicals completed in order to practice, and senior tight end/defensive end Luis Villalobos just started practicing Monday after finally getting his physical turned into Litchfield.
“I had some situations come up and I didn’t get it done until last week,” Villalobos said through an interpreter. “But now I’m ready.”
Once Brewer and Portillo take care of that matter, Litchfield feels confident that he has a team that can be very competitive. Brewer developed very quickly behind center, throwing for 371 yards and eight touchdowns and finishing second in the team in rushing with 227 yards.
Portillo is expected to return after missing all of last year with a knee injury and brings an equally adept throwing and running dual threat.
Villalobos had a team-best 11 catches in 2018 and scored three touchdowns as he brings size and some speed to the receiving game.
More important, Villalobos understands he also is a leader on the field and Litchfield is leaning on him and the other seniors to be coaches to the younger players as well as teammates.
“I’m gonna teach them to do their best and help them grow so that when I graduate, I can know that I helped develop them,” Villalobos said.
It’s all Litchfield could want from his seniors.
After all, the rebuilding process is far from finished.
2018 record: 5-1 overall (played as an independent team)
Head coach: James Litchfield III (fifth year)
Key players: Bruce Brewer Jr., sophomore, 5-6, 130, QB/RB/S; Julio Portillo, senior, 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, QB/RB/LB; Luis Villalobos, senior, 5-11, 170, RB/DL; Antonio Lopez, senior, 5-10, 180, RB/DE.
Outlook: The Roadrunners will operate as an independent program for the third straight season, and this year’s team leans heavily on seniors and freshmen. Brewer was an offensive force as a passer and runner, while Villalobos and Lopez bring size and strength to both sides of the ball. Once again, Litchfield will have to teach the freshmen and eighth graders the nuances of playing at the varsity level, but they could bring a solid base for the program to possibly entertain moving back into a district schedule next year.
Sept. 14 Iowa School for the Deaf, 2 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Arkansas School for the Deaf, TBA
Oct. 5 Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, 2 p.m.
Oct. 12 Kansas School for the Deaf, 2 p.m.
Oct. 19 Washington School for the Deaf, 2 p.m.