LAS VEGAS, N.M. — John Balizan hasn’t forgotten the empty feeling in the pit of his stomach on the afternoon of Nov. 24.
The quarterback for the West Las Vegas Dons watched helplessly as the final seconds of a 35-7 loss in a Class 3A semifinal to Dexter ticked away, signaling the end of the team’s season.
“That left a really bad taste in our mouth, knowing we were right there with the last four teams,” said Balizan, now a senior and a four-year starter at signal-caller. “We don’t want to end our season that way, especially [with me] being a senior now.”
While the loss ended the most successful season since the 2003 Dons reached the 3A semifinals, it punctuated the desire to make amends this year. Once again, the Dons will be considered one of the top teams in 3A, and a contender in an always-tough District 2-3A. And another strong group of seniors, many of whom have played on the varsity since they were freshmen, will try to return to the playoffs in November.
West Las Vegas head coach Adrian Gonzales said the culture change the team needed when he started in 2014 is mostly complete. He said what he saw in the offseason and through the summer workouts was a renewed spirit within the student body toward the team.
“While the interest and participation level is the same, we got a bunch of new kids out,” Gonzales said. “Our [roster] numbers are in the low 30s, but the kids want to be a part of something. They don’t want to play for a program that is losing all the time.”
The result is a team that is in its most successful stretch in more than 30 years, as West Las Vegas has reached the postseason in each of the previous three years and advanced farther each time.
Even though the Dons lost to the eventual state champions in a semifinal, neither Gonzales nor the team see that as a consolation prize.
“That doesn’t do [the loss] justice,” Gonzales said. “They’re still mad. They don’t want to experience anything like that again.”
West Las Vegas’ fortunes will ride a lot on the arm of Balizan and the hands and legs of fellow senior Estevan Gonzales, no relation to the coach. Balizan led the team with 2,552 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, while Gonzales is the leading returning receiver (40 catches, 553 yards, five touchdowns). However, Gonzales is expected to help pick up the slack in the backfield to fill the void left by the graduations of Isaiah Bustamante and Darrion Williams. The pair combined for 2,687 yards rushing and receiving and 31 touchdowns.
Estevan Gonzales isn’t worried about his position change, because he’s used to filling in wherever coach Gonzales needs him.
“I’ve played every position because someone would get hurt and I know the offense and coach Adrian would put me in that position,” Estevan Gonzales said. “I’ve been a fix-it guy on offense and defense. Coach said when I was younger, ‘The more you know, the more you play.’ ”
Add to that an offensive line that might not be as big — having lost three starters who weighed more then 220 pounds each — but is stronger, more athletic and mobile. Coach Gonzales moved a couple of tight ends, Josiah Baca and Eric Gallegos, onto the line, while Mark Coca and Josh Moreno bring experience as returning starters.
West Las Vegas Dons
2018 record: 8-5 overall, 3-1 in District 2-3A. Lost to Dexter, 35-7, in the Class 3A semifinals.
Head coach: Adrian Gonzales (sixth year)
Key players: Estevan Gonzales, senior, 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, RB/DB; John Balizan, senior, 5-3, 175, QB; Damien Gallegos, sophomore, 5-8, 150; RB/LB; Isaiah Deane, senior, 5-9, 160, TE/LB; Mark Coca, 5-8, 180, OL/LB.
Outlook: The Dons are coming off their best season to take a step back. With a strong senior core led by Balizan and Estevan Gonzales, West Las Vegas can lean on a group that has played at the varsity level since they were underclassmen. However, Gallegos and Gonzales will be called upon to fill big holes in the backfield left by Isaiah Bustamante and Darrion Williams. Still, the Dons have plenty of talent and experience returning to make another deep run — possibly to the state championship game on Dec. 1.
Aug. 23 Moriarty, 7 p.m.
Aug. 30 at Santa Rosa, 7 p.m.
Sept. 6 at Portales, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 Abq. Hope Christian, 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 Hatch Valley, 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 at Gallup, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 Raton, 7 p.m.*
Oct. 12 at St. Michael’s, 1 p.m.*
Oct. 25 S.F. Indian School, 7 p.m.*
Nov. 1 at Las Vegas Robertson, TBA
*District 2-3A game
“Them being a little more athletic gives us more scheme-wise to use,” Balizan said. “We can use more screens to the receivers and the backs to where they can move around a little bit more. Nothing against my line last year, but I think they’re a lot smarter than last year’s team in terms of protection and schemes.”
Balizan added that depth should be better than it was toward the end of last year. Several inexperienced sophomores and freshmen had to play in place of injured upperclassmen over the final few weeks of the season.
It had an impact in a 28-6 loss to Las Vegas Robertson in the regular-season finale when the Dons could have won the District 2-3A title, as well as in the loss to the Demons to end the year.
“They didn’t have the experience that we did, and that set the tone for the game [against Dexter],” Balizan said. “It wasn’t so much a different mentality, but with the atmosphere there, the [lack of] depth hit us bad. But they know what it takes now and when they come in to play, they know what to do and what is asked of them.”
All that the Dons need to do now is take that next step and reach the final Saturday of the season.