With the opening kickoff still two weeks away, there is plenty of anticipation building for the high school football season in Valencia County.
All three county high schools — Valencia, Belen and Los Lunas — are coming off trips to the playoffs. One of them, the Los Lunas Tigers, brought home a state championship — a title they will not be able to defend.
For the first time, all three schools will be in different classifications and, the opening night of the season begins with the county “Super Bowl.” Actually, the Valencia Bowl, with the Belen Eagles hosting Los Lunas will be played at 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 19. Plenty to stoke the football fires, as official practices started on Monday.
Los Lunas Tigers
The Los Lunas High School Tigers have plenty of talent returning from the team that went undefeated and captured the Tigers’ first state football championship, a 40-28 victory over Artesia in the 5A title game.
This season, the Tigers move up to Class 6A, with giants from Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. Senior lineman Casey Herrell has mixed feelings about the move.
“It’s definitely fun, but nervous, too, mostly fun seeing how we compare to the bigger schools,” Herrell said. “I think we’ll do good.”
Second year head coach Greg Henington says the Tigers are no longer celebrating the championship but are focused on the new challenge.
“We’re excited about moving on to 6A. Yeah, the glow is gone and now it’s time to work,” Henington said.
Quarterback Paul Cieremans is one of four returning Tigers to earn First Team All-State honors after a dominating junior season.
“We’re not as ‘God-gifted’ but we make up for it with harder work and a little better attitude,” Cieremans said.
The offense appears to be a powerhouse again, but the defense has some holes to fill after losing about eight starters.
“Our defense lost a lot of players but our offense will make up for that. We have a lot of returning starters,” said Herrell, who plays on both sides of the ball.
“We’re excited about the guys we have coming back,” Henington said. “We had a great off season; great weightlifting. The kids have been working hard, had a great summer. We’re ready to go.”
The Tigers are now in District 5/6A with Santa Fe Capital, Albuquerque High, Santa Fe High School and Clovis.
Fourteen miles to the south, the Belen High School Eagles are looking to build on its 7-4 record and a trip to the 5A playoffs, where they defeated Deming but lost in the second round to Los Lunas.
With longtime assistant Kevin Peña now the head coach, the Eagles’ expect to take another step forward.
“We have a great core of kids coming back,” Peña said. “We’ve got some speed. They are ready to go. Our staff is in place. We’re all excited and ready to go.”
The players echoed that.
“Excited, pumped up, ready to get going,” said senior linebacker and offensive lineman Adam Aguilar.
He praised the new coaching staff and is pleased with team chemistry. Both Aquilar and senior wide receiver Elijah Romero however are concerned about the team’s depth and inexperience after the starters, but point to the offense as a strength.
“We have a good, big, offensive line right now. There’s a couple of good receivers, fast running backs too,” Romero said, pointing to Diego Avila as one of the fastest and best running backs in the state.
Aguilar anticipates the Eagles should be able to move the ball well on the ground.
“Our offensive line and backfield, I feel like their going to be one of the best in the state,” Aguilar said.
While coach Peña would like to see more players out for the team, he says his seniors are showing great leadership. The first practices will be devoted to conditioning and learning assignments.
“Let’s go play. Let’s go practice,” Peña says. “We’re anxious to put on the pads.”
The Eagles are in District 1/5A with Highland, Miyamura and Piedra Vista.
Out to the east, the Valencia High School Jaguars seem to be rising. The Jaguars, under fifth-year head coach Wesley Shank, not only reached the playoffs but defeated Taos before losing at Bloomfield in a second round game.
“I’d say so,” Shank said when asked if it was a turnaround year. “We struggled the previous two years. The COVID year was kind of a disaster. I think we’re getting back on the right track.”
To continue on that path, the Jags will need to develop a new starting quarterback while adjusting their approach.
“We think our defense, especially our defensive line, is going to be pretty good,” Shank explained. “We’re going to try to control the pace, run the clock and let our defense give us field position and make a play or two.”
Senior middle linebacker and wide receiver Adriano Ortiz likes what he sees.
“We’re very athletic, very fast,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz is expecting big things from the Jaguars this season. Really big.
“I think we’re a state championship team,” Ortiz said. “If we put the puzzle pieces together that we need, I think we can make a good run a state. I’m ready to put a ring on it — a state championship.”
While Shank is not making predictions, he is more optimistic about the numbers in the program, and is pleased with his freshmen.
“They are as talented as I’ve seen since we’ve been here. They have a good work ethic, a good attitude” Shank said.
This year, the Jags remain in 4A, facing district foes St. Pius, Grants and newcomer Silver High School. Valencia opens the season at home Friday, Aug. 19, against Alamogordo.
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.