Eagles to host 60th Valencia Bowl
There is so much allegory and subplots and background to each Valencia Bowl game, it would be tough to cover all of it at one time. But one important idea is that Friday’s 7 p.m. game at Belen High is a big one — a game that will likely decide many things in District 6-4A, and possibly even Class 4A, for the rest of the season.
The 60th annual edition of the Valencia Bowl will feature the 4-1 Belen Eagles hosting the 5-0 Los Lunas Tigers in what will be the District 6-4A opener for both teams. The Tigers have played a slightly tougher schedule, beating a pair of Class 5A teams, though three of the Eagles’ four wins came on the road.
The teams and their communities have nearly always been intertwined, partly by being only 13 miles apart and partly by the overlap and connections between players, coaches and fans.
The Eagles lead the series, 37-22, and there has been one tie. The pair have only met once in the playoffs, with Belen winning a home state quarterfinal game, 54-0 in 2010. Coaches don’t seem to have to do much motivating during the weeks Belen and Los Lunas are set to play each other. The rivalry is the most storied and well-documented sports connection between county schools, dating to the first time the Eagles and Tigers met on Sept. 25, 1952.
Belen beat Los Lunas, 19-7, in that first game, with Nestor Birner scoring two touchdowns for the Eagles. In fact, Belen won the first seven meetings, including a muddy, 6-0 Eagle victory at BHS in 1959.
Randy Castillo quarterbacked the Tigers to their first win in the series in 1960, throwing a first-half touchdown pass to Ronnie Lente in a game played in Los Lunas on a Wednesday night.
Many of the games have been blowouts, including the 50th Valencia Bowl, which was a 58-14 Los Lunas victory. The News-Bulletin devoted a special section to the first 50 years of the rivalry.
Some of the contests have been extremely close. The 1967 game was the first to be decided in the final minute of play. Tiger quarterback Gene Orono threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to Richard Berni with 48 seconds left for a 13-10 LLHS win.
The 1983 and 1984 games were each both decided by five points. There have been some fisticuffs between camps at times, including the conclusion of the 1984 contest, when a face-mask call on the Tigers led to a 14-9 Eagle win, and a brawl involving players and fans erupted after the game.
A fight also happened at the end of Belen’s 18-16 win in 1980.
In 1999, a blocked extra-point attempt led to the first and, so far, only overtime contest between the teams. In the second overtime, Mark Frasier’s 10-yard scoring run and Aaron Durkin’s extra point stood up as the winning points. Belen coach Ed Johnson decided to go for the win after Josh Pargas scored, but it backfired when Matt Gurle of BHS was tackled by Clint Jojola and James Weldon of the Tigers.
In the spring of 2008, Jeremy Newton and John Lerma were the two finalists for the open BHS job. Lerma was hired as the Eagles’ head coach, and Newton as the defensive coordinator, and Newton took over as the Los Lunas head coach when that positioned opened up in early 2010.
Last year’s game was as exciting as any, despite being played in steady rain. Belen answered both of the Tigers’ first-half scores with a touchdown run and a scoring pass by Nick Kurtz, but Chris Wisneski scored his second TD of the game for the host Tigers with 4:30 to play.
The Los Lunas defense held the Eagles on Belen’s final two possessions of the game. LLHS rushed for 206 yards in the win, which ended Belen’s 32-game regular-season winning streak, the Eagles’ 12-game district win streak, and was the first time Los Lunas had beaten Belen since 2007.
Kurtz, the Eagles’ quarterback, will not play another game in a BHS uniform. The senior suffered a head injury in Belen’s only loss (on Sept. 21 at Goddard), his third upper-body injury within the past two seasons. He decided to hang up his football cleats, according to his father, James.
The small, speedy sophomore, Chris Peralta, has performed admirably at the QB spot.
Los Lunas is hoping to have more players healthy than in its convincing 41-6, mercy-rule win over St. Pius, during which at least a few regulars were sidelined.
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