Barring something unlikely, the Valencia Bowl pitting Belen and Los Lunas will not be played in 2024, ending a football rivalry that started in 1953.
Both schools have preliminary schedules in place that do not include Eagles vs. Tigers, discontinuing a series 75 games strong.
Several factors were considered when making the decision, starting with the enrollment disparity between the two schools and recent gridiron dominance by Los Lunas.
“We both agreed that it would probably be in the best interest,” of both schools, said Wilson Holland, Los Lunas Schools director of athletics, about discussions he had with Steve Contreras, BHS athletic director.
Holland called the end of the rivalry “disappointing because the community thrives on the Belen and Los Lunas game,” but “Steve and I believe in what is best for all kids.”
Belen coach Kevin Peña says the rivalry has been a part of his entire life, but “Los Lunas has gotten so big. I think it had an effect on us.”
The final nail in the Valencia Bowl came last week when the New Mexico Activities Association released details of classification and alignment for the next two-year block, keeping BHS in 5A and LLHS in 6A for football.
If LLHS had been assigned to 5A, as Holland said he had been told during the summer, the two schools might have automatically played each other in the same district.
Belen and Los Lunas have preliminary non-district football schedules in place for 2024. Holland won’t release the names of LLHS rivals but says the Tigers will travel south to play “a tough opponent.”
Contreras confirms Belen tentatively will face non-district foes Bloomfield, Santa Fe High and Valencia, renewing a county rivalry that hasn’t been played in several years.
“We’ve been talking to Belen’s staff about trying to set up a new type of Valencia Bowl,” said Valencia coach LeDarrius Cage. “I think it’s good for both schools to get a rivalry going on.”
“There is still kind of a rivalry there between both teams — it’s a good show for the county and community,” the Belen coach said.
The other big development relating to football is that there will be fewer districts, much larger in size.
“I was an advocate of that,” said Holland, adding that it will make scheduling easier. “Some teams don’t want to play certain teams, which I think is a cop out.”
In 6A, there will be six, seven and eight schools in three unbalanced districts. Los Lunas is in the largest grouping with Albuquerque High, Atrisco Heritage, Eldorado, Sandia, Santa Fe, West Mesa and defending state champion La Cueva.
“It kind of changes your whole philosophy,” Greg Henington, LLHS coach, said about the larger districts. “Right smack dab early in the season every game matters — dramatically.”
In 5A, there will be only two districts with Belen, Capital, Del Norte, Highland, Los Alamos, Miyamura, Rio Grande and Valley in District 1. There was a collective sigh of relief with the Eagles avoiding the southern district with powerhouses Roswell and Artesia.
“We were happy to be in the northern half,” said Contreras.
“It makes it easier for scheduling, for sure.” Peña added, “The travel would have been horrendous for us. That would have been a tough district.”
With 15 football schools in 4A, there will also be just two districts. Albuquerque Academy, Chaparral, Manzano, Portales, Silver and St. Pius are grouped with Valencia.
“I like the alignment. It’s good for us,” said Cage, even though there will be some long trips. “I think we’ll be set up for a successful year.”
Most other sports will see little or no change. One of the exceptions is 5A basketball, with Los Lunas playing in a larger six team district with Albuquerque High, Rio Grande, West Mesa, Miyamura and Atrisco Heritage.
The only sport that will feature all three county schools in the same district is swimming and diving, while the trio is in the same region for girls’ wrestling.
“There was a lot of anticipation,” said Contreras about what the NMAA was going to do. “There was a big sigh of relief for where we were placed, the way things turned out.”
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.