‘THEY’RE GOLIATH AND WE’RE DAVID’
Santa Fe High, with more than 1,400 students, will take the field tonight against tiny Escalante, enrollment 105. But don’t call the Demons the favorite — they haven’t been for years
In terms of enrollment, momentum and history, Friday night’s prep football game between tiny Escalante and host Santa Fe High at Ivan Head Stadium looks like a latter-day confrontation between David and Goliath. Only question is, who’s who? Andrew Martinez, Santa Fe’s firstyear head coach, thinks he knows.
“If you want to say ‘David versus Goliath,’ ” he said, “they’re Goliath and we’re David.”
To understand how a school of 1,440 calls itself the underdog against an opponent whose enrollment is just 105, you have to understand the distortion mirror that is high school sports — or more specifically, the dilapidated state of the once-proud Santa Fe football program.
The Demons’ problems are well documented. They’re on a 31-game losing streak and decided to play as an independent, thus eliminating the requirement to compete in a district with larger schools.
In their own world, the Escalante Lobos are everything the Demons are not. Escalante is 7-0 this season and ranked second in Class 2A. Their record since 2014 is 39-3, and the team won state championships in 2014 and 2015. These Lobos have profited from the coalescing agent
of community pride in their feeder communities of Chama, Tierra Amarilla, Los Ojos, Cebolla, Canjilon and Ensenada.
Desperate to get his players in a position to win, Martinez said the yawning gap in size hasn’t been much of a conversation starter.
“To tell the truth, no one has really said anything or mentioned it,” Martinez said.
Still, the difference in numbers is startling. This represents the first time a school from the biggest classification in New Mexico has played the smallest since 1999, when thenClass 4A Española, also playing as an independent, faced Class 1A Questa. At the time, there were just four classifications in the state.
Santa Fe High and Escalante will line up against each other because of the logistics of the independent Demons trying to fill a schedule. With high school teams heading into district play once the calendar turned to October, the number of schools Santa Fe High could approach for a potential game diminished.
Escalante had an opening because one of its potential District 1-2A opponents, Navajo Pine, disbanded its football program this year, leaving the Lobos with just two district games.
“It became difficult during this time of the year to get teams that are not in district play,” said Santa Fe Principal Carl Marano. “Escalante is a formidable opponent, and they were just trying to schedule teams that had availability, too.”
For his part, Escalante head coach Dusty Giles said he kept all options on the table in forming his own schedule, but blanched at the thought of a long bus ride to Southern New Mexico to find a game against a 2A or a 3A school. What was important, however, was finding a formidable opponent that could challenge the Lobos as they prepare for the 2A state playoffs, which begin in three weeks.
“We needed some competition,” Giles said. “We weren’t going to get it without having to drive six or seven hours to do it. Here, we got just a couple of hours [to drive] and we get a super quality opponent. It’s a win-win for both schools.”
Well, Santa Fe High would simply like to get a win. Part of the idea for playing as an independent was to get a couple of victories and instill some confidence into players who have not experienced the sensation since they were freshmen. The hunt has been difficult. Even without a district schedule, Santa Fe’s schedule is by no means filled with cupcakes. The combined record of the Demons’ nine opponents this season is 38-20 heading into Friday’s game, and only one of those opponents has a losing record.
Still, Martinez saw a team that he felt could compete right away when he took over in January after spending much of the past 17 years as the defensive coordinator at St. Michael’s, where he helped the Horsemen win three state titles.
“After being here in the summer and seeing the student-athletes that we had, I thought we could sneak up on some people,” Martinez said. “Our coaching staff did, as well. We thought maybe we could win four or five games, maybe even seven, if things went well for us. But each week has proven to be a struggle.”
The same could be said for the decades that followed Santa Fe’s rise to prominence in the 1970s under head coach David Church, culminating in a memorable state championship in 1979. The opening of Capital High School in 1988 siphoned away some of the talent from Santa Fe High, but the pall of a 37-game losing streak from 1991-94 that was the state record until Albuquerque High broke it in 2013 looms as large now as it did then.
Ray Holladay, who guided the program from 2009 until last season, said the hardest obstacle to overcome during his time was the losing culture that permeated the school and made defeat almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“We had 11 kids a day coming out in the summer [for workouts],” Holladay remembered of the summer of 2009.
For a time, things got better. Santa Fe High recorded its first non-losing season in eight years in 2010 and won District 2-4A titles in 2012 and 2013.
“We steadily built the numbers to where we had close to 85 to 90 kids out and staying in football,” Holladay said. “We had more than that for tryouts and we never cut anyone — we just lost them through attrition and them finding out that maybe this sport wasn’t for them.”
Holladay said the program was close to crawling out of the hole when the the school returned to the highest classification — in this case, 6A — and the NMAA placed it in District 1-6A, with the likes of Rio Rancho, Rio Rancho Cleveland and Albuquerque Volcano Vista. Those schools were among the six largest schools in the state by student enrollment, all over 2,100 students, while Santa Fe High hovered around 1,500 students.
Holladay argued that the Demons just didn’t have the depth those larger programs had to overcome injuries that often occurred during the season.
“How do you take a school of 1,400 or 1,500 kids and put us in the conference where those schools have a difference of a thousand or 800 more kids?” Holladay said.
Fast-forward to 2017: Martinez said his biggest challenge as head coach has little to do with what happens on the field. He finds himself partly playing psychologist with his players, and he has even brought in sports psychologists to talk to them.
“I’ve learned it takes an entire village and a culture to change the mental perspective of a program,” Martinez said. “… This is the hardest I have ever coached in my entire life.”
In the Chama Valley, where the Lobos reign supreme and confidence is high, Giles said he doesn’t expect to see a Demons team wallowing in self-pity from all the losing.
“That tells me they want to get some wins and build that confidence and get into that positive frame of mind,” he said.
Still, Giles said, he doesn’t expect his players will be struck by playing a much bigger school.
“They have a history of being extremely physical and very small,” he said. “That’s how it’s been since they started playing football. It’s just born in these guys. Our guys aren’t intimidated by anybody.”
Tonight’s game isn’t a one-time collision. Santa Fe and Escalante agreed to play again in 2018, so the Demons will travel to Tierra Amarilla to the Lobos’ red-turfed field.
For now, Martinez might very well be right about his “David” assessment of his Demons against the Lobos.
He just didn’t expect it to be that way.
ABOVE: The Santa Fe High Demons, shown here in a Sept. 8 game against Capital, haven’t won any of their last 31 games. They play Escalante, a school with an enrollment of 105 on Friday night.
RIGHT: Escalante gets ready to hike the ball against McCurdy on Saturday. Escalante, is undefeated in Class 2A.
The second quarter of Santa Fe High’s Oct. 6 game against Roswell at Ivan Head Stadium.
Andrew Martinez, head coach of the Santa Fe High School football team, says the size disparity between his Demons and the Escalante Lobos hasn’t been a big talking point.