Belen Eagles relying on veterans

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The traffic along I-25 hums quietly just a quarter of a mile away, with the Belen High School football stadium about as close to a major thoroughfare as any facility in New Mexico.

The parallel in this case is obvious, since the Eagles continue to be riding in prep football’s fast lane.

Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal: Belen’s Manuel Romero, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound running back, rushed for about 700 yards last season as a junior. He’s one of 30 seniors on the squad.

“I’ve been here six years,” head coach John Lerma said, “and we’ve been to the semifinals four times and to the state finals one year. We’ve built a tradition here. The only thing we haven’t been able to do is get back to that championship game and win it.”

Belen, which comes in at No. 7 in the Journal’s preseason top-10 countdown of teams in the metro area, would appear to have all the pieces in place to engineer a run toward a state title in the newly formed Class 5A.

“This team has been together a long time,” said senior strong safety Matthew Lucero.

The Eagles have 12 starters returning and a senior class – 30 – much larger than in any of Lerma’s previous six seasons.

“We have the talent, the speed, the size,” senior middle linebacker Dustin Dueñas said. “I think we can go all the way.”

The Eagles, who open at Artesia on Aug. 29, are coming off a state semifinal loss to Farmington last November.

“This is an experienced team,” Lerma said, “and most of these kids are two-year starters.”

Belen’s tricky veer has been an efficient scheme for Lerma since he took over the Eagles in 2008.

And despite a lack of depth on the perimeter – perhaps the only real concern for Lerma on offense – Belen has a third-year starting quarterback in senior Chris Peralta, two viable backs with Manuel Romero and Eli Baltierrez, and four returning offensive-line starters.

Romero and Peralta each rushed for around 700 yards last season, and Lerma has particularly high hopes for Romero.

“I’m excited about him,” the veteran coach said.

Baltierrez is being converted from wide receiver, and he’s Belen’s fastest athlete.

“I think no matter who’s out there,” Dueñas said, “we have speed and quickness and power.”

Seniors Isaiah Relaford and Danny Gordon key the offensive line, which has been altered slightly. Relaford is moving inside from tackle to guard.

The defense lost a pair of ends, but Lerma is inserting Relaford and senior Andres Benavidez into those spots, with Isaac Kinkaid, a very promising sophomore, also expected to rotate in for playing time.

“Our defense is rough,” Relaford said. “We have a lot of hard hitters out there.”

The linebacking corps, led by Dueñas, is not overly large. But it’s a quick and aggressive group with an experienced secondary behind them, just in case.

“The main thing is, we have great kids,” Lerma said. “They’re unselfish, and they’re a hard-working group. They know the game, they know their football, and they take pride in it. It’s a great class. A close-knit class.”

They’ll need to be.

Belen faces an extraordinarily difficult first month, a month that should give early indications about the Eagles’ long-term potential in November and December.

After opening at Artesia, the Eagles face Moriarty, then get back-to-back home games against the two Class 4A state finalists from last season, Farmington and Goddard.

When the Scorpions visit Sept. 12, it’ll be the first regular-season meeting between the schools. Farmington eliminated Belen in last year’s 4A semifinals 14-7 before beating Goddard the following week in the championship game.

“For a lot of us,” Dueñas said, “it’s been 11 years together. Our whole lives have been building up to this.”