Albuquerque Journal

Manzano gets its opportunit­y to prove it might be a title contender

- JAMES YODICE

La Cueva had its turn on Broadway, to rave reviews. Now the Bears yield the stage to the Manzano Monarchs.

Just a couple of weeks after the Bears’ mauling of Cleveland, we turn our focus to Saturday afternoon, when the third-ranked Monarchs will play host to No. 1 Rio Rancho. These two elite 6A programs are meeting up for the third time in 12 months.

I will say here what I’ve said all summer: I’m not convinced the Monarchs need to beat the Rams, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt their cause, as a team that people believe could win state. I did earnestly believe La Cueva had to beat Cleveland two weeks ago.

However, after dropping two games to Rio Rancho last year by a combined 65 points, Manzano had better find a way to play the Rams competitiv­ely for 48 minutes. Another blowout loss will damage its status as a 6A contender about as quickly as a Jordan Byrd 100-meter dash.

Rio Rancho remains the gold standard in 6A football. But, it is fair to say that the Rams don’t have that same unbeatable air that surrounded them last season. Clovis proved that earlier this month.

A team that can turn Rio Rancho over in the passing game, as the Wildcats did, will give itself a legitimate chance to beat the Rams. Is Manzano capable of this? Remember, the Monarchs graduated their two best defensive backs off last year’s squad, and with Rio Rancho’s gargantuan set of receivers, Manzano’s linebackin­g corps and DBs face some challenges.

Secondaril­y, this is an extremely demanding test for Byrd and that sensationa­l Manzano offense. Rio Rancho’s defense remains solid, but it has surrendere­d some big plays this season. And the Monarchs, led by QB Byrd and receiver Andrew Erickson, certainly possess big-play capability.

This could become a fascinatin­g chess match; if the Rams’ potent defensive front can negate Manzano running back Xavier Ivey-Saud, that switches the onus to Byrd’s arm — and, possibly, those fantastic sprinter’s legs — in the passing game. (The potential of that makes all of us, except Rio Rancho, rub our hands together in anticipato­ry glee.)

MAKING THE ROUNDS: From our friend Mark Rudi of the Las Cruces Sun-News: Last weekend, for the first time since Centennial opened in 2012, all four of the city’s big schools lost on the same weekend. Take a bow, metro area. … Coach Jack Cisco led Hatch Valley to an undefeated Class 4A state title in 2015 and retired after last season. He was also a longtime top assistant coach to the late Jim Bradley at Roswell High. But his retirement didn’t last long. Cisco is calling the defense for Alamogordo this season and is working for his son A.J., the Tigers’ new head coach. … Mayfield is 0-4 for the first time since 1990, and at the moment, I think we’d all agree that it is difficult to imagine a Class 6A playoff field that includes the Trojans. … Kudos to Roswell High for scratching out a come-from-behind, 22-18 win over unbeaten Los Lunas on Friday; we could see this one again in November. … Even bigger kudos to Cleveland, which not only managed to beat Las Cruces on the road last weekend, but did so with a backup QB, Justin Ainsworth, after Angelo Trujillo was forced out with a concussion from the previous week against La Cueva. … Condolence­s to my alma mater, Cibola, which, after enduring an impossibly difficult first three games (La Cueva, Las Cruces, Manzano) led Carlsbad 20-0 on the road Friday night, only to see the Cavemen furiously rally and steal a 21-20 victory. … It is true that Rio Grande has lost 30 games in a row, but it is equally true that the Ravens are showing improvemen­t and fight under new coach Dennis Minidis. Take two teams who destroyed them last year, Sandia and Belen. Rio Grande played them both much closer this year, and the Ravens were only down 11 to Belen in the fourth quarter with 8 minutes to go last Thursday night in a 31-13 loss.

IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF LARCENY: A play that Rio Rancho has been using for years, and to great effect, is that jet sweep disguised as a short pass.

What is interestin­g is that at least two other metro teams, first West Mesa and then Volcano Vista, also are running this play. West Mesa and coach Ron McMath were using it at the North-South game in late July. Both the Mustangs and the Hawks ran this play several times when they met each other on Sept. 7.

“It’s actually so much faster,” Rams coach David Howes said, comparing this method to an actual handoff.

Moreover, Howes said this kind of liberal borrowing among schools is common.

“Anytime you’ve had several years of high level success, you’ll have teams say, ‘Oooh, something like that may benefit us,’ ” Howes said.

“We’ve robbed and stolen things from Mayfield and Las Cruces and Artesia over the years, and now people are starting to do that with us. Everybody is kind of stealing from each other.”

CANCER PLEDGE: A handful of schools — Clovis, Cibola, Las Cruces, Hatch Valley, Jemez Valley, Kirtland Central and Raton among them — are participat­ing in the Touchdowns Against Cancer drive, pledging money to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for every touchdown those schools score between Sept. 14 and Sept. 30.

STATS: The Journal has begun publishing weekly individual football statistics. Send offensive leaders, and solo tackle leaders, by 2 p.m. each Wednesday to sports@abqjournal.com.

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