Tigers edged by Goddard in title game, 17-14

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It will have to happen in a different year.

Mike Stearns-News-Bulletin photo: Los Lunas High senior Mikey Martinez, left, and other Tigers wrap up Goddard’s Anthony Ornelas in Friday’s Class 4A state championship game. The Tigers fell to Goddard, 17-14, in the first state title game played at LLHS’s Willie Chavez Field.

The Los Lunas High football team had its hopes of getting its first state title pushed out of the way Friday by the Goddard Rockets. The Tigers’ 17-14 home loss in the Class 4A state championship, in front of an estimated 7,000 fans at Willie Chavez Field, meant it will be at least one more year before a Valencia County football team can finally win a state title.

Kelsey Cunningham of Goddard hit a 21-yard field goal as time expired at the end of Friday’s game. Several Tiger players, many of them seniors, fell to the turf in dismay as the Rockets celebrated their third state title in the past five years.

The Tigers, who had never even reached the semifinals before this season, finished 2012 with a 12-1 record. The Tigers’ amazing season and title game appearance seemed to take on a life of its own, drawing statewide interest, unprecedented media exposure and drawing in LLHS alumni and others who had not been to a game in years.

“These guys all played their hearts out completely, and just came up a little bit short,” said LLHS third-year coach Jeremy Newton. “They put the team in front of themselves all year, and the entire journey has been really awesome.”

Streets and business were decorated with “Go Tigers” News-Bulletin banners and other encouragement. Some fans brought RVs into a designated LLHS parking lot and turned much of Friday into an all-day tailgate party, similar to college games.

Los Lunas had only seen a few relatively close games this season, but of those was the Tigers’ dramatic 24-20 in the semifinals at Aztec on Dec. 1. The championship game started with some apparent jitters early on, as a Goddard player nearly muffed a kickoff and a Tiger receiver dropped a pass for what would have been a first down.

Neither team could sustain a drive early on. Even when the Rockets (12-0) intercepted Tiger quarterback Chris Wisneski and returned it to the LLHS 34-yard line, the Los Lunas defense stopped a fourth-down play that ended Goddard’s scoring chances.

Two problems for the Tigers were Goddard’s large, talented offensive line, and the ability of the Rockets to possess the ball on long, clock-eating drives. One of those drives led to the first points of the game when Cody French made it around the left end for a 26-yard scoring run, with 5:24 left in the second quarter.

The Tiger offense had good field position most of the night, and finally took advantage on a 57-yard drive late in the first half. Tiger tailback Jalen Chavez made it around the left end for a 5-yard touchdown with 1:01 left in the second quarter.

Goddard drove into Tiger territory in the final minute of the half, but Goddard quarterback Anthony Ornelas, and his receiver, seemed to get their signals crossed on a deep pass, which was intercepted by Chris Sanchez of the Tigers. The teams went into the locker room tied 7-7.

That’s how the score remained until the fourth quarter; one thrd-quarter Goddard drive with Cunningham missing a 35-yard field goal attempt to the right.

Los Lunas linebacker Eddie Canizo intercepted a heavily pressured Ornelas late in the third quarter, setting up the LLHS offense at the Goddard 15-yard line.

Chavez made it around the left side on an option pitch from Wisneski with 11:32 left in the fourth quarter, and Gustavo Muñoz’s extra point gave the Tigers a 14-7 lead.

However, the ensuing kickoff was very short, an Goddard started its next drive on its own 45-yard line.

Los Lunas made some strong defensive plays in the game, but Goddard seemed to be able to make big third-down plays — especially in the fourth quarter. Ornelas and French both turned seemingly bottled-up plays into gains on the Rockets’ final two drives.

French capped a drive with a 6-yard touchdown run, with Cunningham’s extra point tying the game at 14-14 with 5:24 left.

Chavez returned the kickoff 43 yards for the Tigers, but they went three-and-out and punted, and the Rockets took over at the their own 19-yard line.

Ornelas completed a pinpoint pass under pressure to David Sweet for a critical first down. The Rockets got 15 yards and an automatic first down on a questionable pass-interference penalty, and drove to about the 5-yard line with no timeouts before French spiked the ball with 4.4 seconds left.

Cunningham, after Newton called two time-outs to attempt to freeze the Rocket kicker, easily nailed the field goal, and the clock ran out on the Tigers’ season on the play.

The pass interference call was one of only two penalties against the Tigers on Friday.

Goddard was flagged seven times for 43 yards.

Chavez, the Tigers’ leading rusher this season, ended up with only 36 yards Friday. Los Lunas rushed for 134 yards as a team, with junior fullback Darron Gallegos rushing for 52.

Wisneski, in his last game as a Tiger, accounted for 46 yards on the ground and was 5-of-12 through the air for 50 yards with one interception.

French rushed for 162 yards on 30 carries for the Rockets.

Goddard’s main quarterback, Ornelas, was sacked five times, and was 4-of-9 for 61 yards, and the Tigers intercepted him twice.

The loss marked the end of an incredible era for about 16 Tiger seniors, who, as freshman, saw the varsity get pummeled in LLHS’ last year as a 5A team, and who have been coached by Newton’s staff since the coach arrived in 2010 — Los Lunas’ first year after dropping down to 4A.

Greg Wortman, one of the Tiger seniors who will be moving on, expressed his gratitude to the teammates, coaches, families and parents who have supported the program.

“We are all blessed,” said Wortman. “It’s hard to end with a loss like this, but we fought to the end. For my ability to even be here, I’d first like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”


-- Email the author at jbrooks@news-bulletin.com.