Tradition of winning the strength for Belen

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Head coach John Lerma will be the first to tell you, the Belen Eagles football teams has had five years of great success.

At one point, he points out, the Eagles were on a 32-game regular season winning streak between 2008 and 2010. Last year’s 9-3 squad was cut from similar cloth, making it all the way to the state semifinals.

News-Bulletin file photo: CHRIS PERALTA leads a young Belen Eagles backfield that is being relied on to take Belen deep into the state playoffs.

There’s a simple reason for that, said Lerma.

“We feel like we’ve started a tradition here and the kids want to keep that tradition going,” Lerma said after a recent practice. “The kids are playing real hard and playing superior football the last few years. Now it’s up to this team to keep that tradition going.”

With 16 lettermen coming back, and six starters returning on both sides of the ball, the Eagles look poised to make another deep run into the Class 4A playoffs and to seriously challenge Los Lunas for the District 6-4A title.

Being beaten by their district rivals in their last two meetings is a big motivator, said senior defensive end/offensive lineman Isaac Valdez.

“That’s 100 percent motivation,” he said. “They’ve always been big rivals. When we get to district that’s going to be a big game. But right now we’re focused on Deming.”

Belen meets the Wildcats in their season opener on Aug. 30, a rematch from last season’s quarterfinals. When that happens, the Eagles will be leaning on their seniors, who aren’t great in number, Lerma said, but are great in quality on this junior-dominated squad.

“The senior class is small, but good,” he said.

Among those seniors are Valdez, wideout Nick Aragon, defensive back Tristan Baca and guard Cody Thompson, who along with Valdez, tackle Isaiah Relaford and center Andres Benavidez are part of an offensive line that is very important to the Eagles.

“We’re tickled to death because every year we’ve had to replace 90 percent of our line,” said Lerma.

The O-line will be key because the Eagles will continue to focus on running the ball, centering their offense on running backs like fullback Trenton Barba, as well as senior running backs Josh Garcia and Andrew Castillo, who will try to replace 1,000-plus yard rusher Javy Armijo.

News-Bulletin file photo: BELEN HIGH SCHOOL kicks off the 2013 football season hosting the Deming Wildcats at home on Aug. 30. The Eagles defeated Deming in last season’s Class 4A playoffs.

“We’ve rushed close to 40,000 yards in five years, that’s how lethal our rushing game has been,” said Lerma. “We hope that continues.”

One person the Eagles won’t have to replace is junior signal-caller Chris Peralta, who stepped into the quarterback position mid-season last year.

“Quarterback is going to be very stable,” said Lerma. “He’s got experience and that experience is going to help him a lot.”

On defense, the Belen line and linebackers are a strength, but the Eagles defensive backfield is a concern, said Lerma. Having a defensive back like Castillo, who accounted for six interceptions last season, may help. But the unit’s youth will be something to overcome.

“We have a young secondary and they have to come through,” said Lerma. “We have depth at linebacker. I feel good about our depth (on defense).”

While Los Lunas gets all the attention, Lerma and his players think Belen may be poised to spring some surprises.

“We’re a little under the radar because Los Lunas is getting all the publicity now,” said Peralta. “They deserve it because they were in state finals. But we were in the semifinals. We were a young team last year, but I think we grew up a lot. We’re a lot stronger now.”

Lerma said he feels the team will keep the school’s winning tradition alive.

“I really like this football team,” he said. “I think we have great potential. The key to our success this year is trying to stay as healthy as we can, at key positions.”

Expectations are high, but Lerma and his players seem to like it that way.

“There’s some pressure there (to make semifinals again),” Peralta said. “But we want to take it a step further.”