The 74th annual Valencia Bowl is not quite as you remember it. Perhaps, for the first time ever, the Los Lunas-Belen high school football showdown is the opening game of the season, set for this Friday, Aug. 19.
It is a non-district game for the first time in memory and it has been shifted to a Friday night for the first time in years.
With Los Lunas moving up to class 6A, the programs are no longer in the same district, precipitating some changes to the schedule.
While it is an unprecedented start to the 2022 season, no doubt one thing hasn’t changed — the intensity. It is easy to sense what this rivalry means to the Tigers and Eagles, both coaches and players, but there is also plenty of respect.
When talking to Los Lunas players, the word “scrappy” kept coming up when referring to the Eagles.
“They always come to play. It’s always fun,” said Tigers’ senior lineman Casey Herrell. “It’ll be a really good game.”
There is a similar feeling on the other side of the ball.
“They’re a good team,” said Eagles’ senior linebacker Adam Aguilar. “They got moved up (to Class 6A) for a reason, obviously, but I think we have a chance.”
It is a feeling shared by teammate Elijah Romero, a senior wide receiver.
“We’re just going to come out ready from the first play,” Romero said.
As for the changes in the scheduling, “It’s a little weird,” said Los Lunas senior quarterback Paul Cieremans. “But it’s a new season. First time for everything.”
Los Lunas second-year head coach Greg Henington says despite playing the Eagles to start the season it is still “The Valencia County rivalry that everyone is excited about. It is a good way to start, get that rivalry going off the bat. We’re definitely excited. It’s been a compact spring and summer and we are just ready to get after it.”
First year Belen head coach Kevin Peña goes back a long way in this rivalry, playing quarterback for the Eagles, graduating in 1983.
“I don’t think we’ve ever opened against Los Lunas,” Peña said. “I think it is great for the county, the communities.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking. They are the defending state champions, and their numbers …,” his voice trailing off as he refers to the size of the Los Lunas roster.
The X’s and O’s for this years’ Valencia Bowl are more difficult to guess because neither team has played a game, and because, as a new head coach, Peña has likely added different wrinkles and schemes.
While the overall series, which started in 1953, favors Belen 41-31-1, recent history favors Los Lunas. The Tigers have won six straight games against the Eagles, giving up just six points in the last four games.
The Tigers are likely favored again. They have eight players returning who received all-state recognition, including four on the first team: Cieremans at quarterback, kicker Kaden Bell, linebacker Miguel Andrade and center Jasiah Baca.
The Tigers do have holes to fill. Gone are nine all-stateers, including seven on defense.
Belen had key departures, too. Jaquez Brody was all-state on the defensive line and at tight end. Sam Tibbs was a second team all-state running back. Quarterback Diego Espinoza, who had six touchdown passes, will also need to be replaced.
The Eagles will start Hunter Garcia under center, who has no varsity experience at quarterback.
Coach Peña says the Eagles’ will give it their best shot.
“I have confidence in our kids. We’ll give it everything we can,” Peña said. “I believe in my kids.”
As if anymore spice needed to be added to the Valencia Bowl, there is this: Greg Henington was the head coach of the Eagles for three years, ending in 2018. One of his assistants was Peña, now the Belen head man.
Peña says he learned a great deal under Henington, including discipline. To mix up the orange and maroon even further is the fact that the late Rex Henington, Greg’s father, coached football at Belen and was the athletic director at Los Lunas High School.
While predictions in this series are risky, don’t be surprised if the game is close — 24 of the 73 contests have been decided by a touchdown or less.
At least one thing relating to the Valencia Bowl hasn’t changed. In addition to bragging rights, the winner will take home the “Chile Roaster” trophy, sponsored by the Valencia County News-Bulletin. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. on Friday at Eagle Stadium.
Friday night lights
In recent years, the Valencia Bowl had been played on a Saturday afternoon to avoid possible off-the-field problems, including fights.
Belen athletic coordinator Stephen Contreras said this years’ game was scheduled before he took over his position in mid-July, and he does not know why the game was moved.
Contreras said with any rivalry game, there will be a lot of emotion and intensity.
“We are confident that the football fans from our community will come out and support our student athletes with good sportsmanship and positive behavior,” Contreras said.
Both Belen High School and Los Lunas High School will have security staff at the game, according to Contreras, adding that local law enforcement will be present as usual.
Both Belen and Los Lunas hit the road last week for scrimmages.
The Eagles were in Estancia, playing 10 downs on offense and 10 downs on defense against the host team, as well as Valencia High School and St. Pius X.
Peña said overall it wasn’t great but he did see a lot of good things. The defense played well and got to the ball, Peña said, but the Eagles need to be more efficient and cut down on the penalties.
The Tigers traveled to Rio Rancho High School and got their first taste of 6A football, even though it was not an official game.
Henington said he was pleased to see that the players were not intimidated by the Rams. Overall, Henington said he took a lot of positives from the scrimmage, although there are several areas the team needs to improve on.
Valencia High School
The Valencia High School football team hosts Alamogordo at 7 pm, Friday, Aug. 19.
Not only is this the season opener for VHS, but it will be the first game at Jaguar Stadium with new synthetic turf that was recently installed.
Valencia is coming off a 7-5 season that included a trip to the state playoffs last year. Alamogordo had a 2-6 record last season, but one of the Tigers victories was a season opening 45-6 win against the Jaguars.
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.