It is time to have the talk. No, not that talk. The talk about the future of football in Valencia County. Specifically, the gridiron rivalry between 5A Belen High School and Los Lunas High School, which moved up to 6A after winning the 5A state title last year.
With the recent dominance by the Tigers and the growing enrollment gap, does this rivalry need a reset? Should the two keep playing each other annually on the gridiron? The answer, according to administrators from both schools, appears to be “no.”
Let’s be clear. I do not have a dog in this fight. I just want to get the conversation in the open because there is no doubt whispers in school hallways and at the kitchen table about whether the Tigers and Eagles should continue to battle it out in football.
This discussion is not a knock on the Belen program. To the contrary, the Eagles have skilled athletes, who play hard and are well coached. This is a numbers game. According to information supplied by both school districts, LLHS has 460 more students than BHS. With the growth surrounding LLHS, that gap will surely grow.
Some other numbers: The Tigers have won seven straight games in the rivalry by an average score of 40-5, including four shutouts. The Eagles have totaled just six points in the last five games against Los Lunas.
It’s true that rivalries ebb and flow. In the first 25 years of this series starting in 1953, Belen won 22 out of 25 games. But this seems different.
Still, altering the rivalry could be painful. Dad and grandpa played in it. Many are emotionally invested. But now, the two schools are in different districts, different classes. They played on opening night, for crying out loud. Rivalries sustain themselves not only because of proximity but because of competitiveness, close games.
New rivalries can spring up quickly. A couple of nail-biters, a cheap shot, a few heated words exchanged and all of a sudden that is the school which gets you fired up the most. And remember, the Eagle-Tiger rivalry would continue in other sports.
Belen Consolidated Schools athletic coordinator Steve Contreras has confirmed he has found a school, which he would not name, to replace the Tigers for opening night next year in Los Lunas. If LLHS can find a new opponent, the two will not play each other in 2023.
“There is such a big disparity in numbers,” Contreras gave as the reason.
The Eagles’ football team has been alerted of the possible change. Contreras said many of the people he has consulted are behind the move but “there will likely be mixed feelings” in the community.
Eagles’ head coach Kevin Peña has concerns about the rivalry with the Tigers, as he told VCNB during a Facebook Live before the season.
“For me, it’s all about our kids and all about our injuries,” Peña said. “I’m playing 7, 8 kids both ways. I’ve got to look out for my kids. They’re going against fresh guys every down.”
It is not a done deal for next season. Director of athletics for Los Lunas Schools Wilson Holland has been searching for a replacement, which hasn’t been easy. Holland says “most schools are in the middle of a two year block schedule.”
Plus, facing the Tigers on their home turf is something many programs might not relish. Holland says he’ll give it another week or two to find a replacement. If not, the Eagles will stay on the schedule in 2023.
The third player in all this is 4A Valencia High School in the Los Lunas School district. Right now, three county high schools, separated by about 12 miles each, are in three different classes in football.
It would be exciting to see all three under one umbrella, in the same district. But that would mean enrollment guidelines would need to be adjusted for Los Lunas Schools. Right now, LLHS has 1502 students while VHS has 898. VHS’ numbers are down about 12 percent from 10 years ago, while LLHS enrollment has increased by nearly 300 in that span.
In the meantime, Peña says he would like to bring the Jaguars onto his schedule.
“We’re playing Los Lunas so why wouldn’t we play Valencia?” he asked.
So, put aside the talk of politics and religion during Thanksgiving dinner and chew on the future of Valencia County football instead. It’s time to have the talk.
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.