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Bulldogs get Blue #32: Artesia tops Roswell 35-21 in 5A state title game

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“Joy… just joy.”

Senior linebacker Diego Wesson summed up the emotions of the Bulldog football team Saturday in one simple word — the pure, overwhelming happiness he and his teammates felt as the final seconds of Artesia’s 32nd state championship victory ticked away at Bulldog Bowl.

It was everywhere. You could hear it in the rising roar from the home stands as quarterback Nye Estrada took a knee. You could see it on the faces of the ‘Dogs and their coaches as they erupted onto the field from the home sideline.

It radiated from the families supporting their players, the band members belting out “Onward Bulldogs,” the fans who’d stood the entire game in the throngs ringing the concourse at the standing-room-only Class 5A title game and those who rose from the same seats they’ve occupied for decades.

And if you listened just right, you could almost hear echoes of it from times gone by as well. The joy of those who watched Artesia begin its legacy of dominance at the Bowl in the late 1960s and all those who followed through the years; the joy of every team represented by a football on the face of the press box.

After the 2022 title-winners claimed their spot, there was a slight asymmetry to the last of the four lines of footballs situated above the luxury suites. Just one empty space remained.

On Saturday, the Bulldogs finished the row.

“I think this one might be better,” said Estrada, who helmed the offense in his junior season as well. “Winning it at home in front of everyone, in front of this awesome crowd, and winning it with my guys — I moved here and grew up with them, so it’s awesome.”

The second-ranked ‘Dogs defeated top-ranked Roswell High 35-21 for the 5A championship, successfully defending their title and securing the program’s 32nd. That places Artesia back into a tie for second overall on the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) list of all-time state wins. The Bulldogs remain atop the list of titles won in the modern era.

The victory also avenged Artesia’s Oct. 13 loss to the Coyotes in the teams’ District 4-AAAAA opener at Wool Bowl, a bout that seemed to solidify the playoff collision course the two teams had been on since the start of the season.

“We proved that we’re No. 1, and I’m just glad to be part of it,” said senior safety Jesse Armendariz. “I think it was a great overall performance on both sides.”

As opposed to the teams’ last meeting, in which the Big Orange offense was never able to build any forward momentum, the ‘Dogs scored out of the gate Saturday to set the tone.

Following four runs by junior RB Frankie Galindo and a pair of first-down passes from Estrada to Izac Cazares, Artesia threw down the gauntlet from the Coyote 35-yard line. Estrada dropped one in the bucket to slot back Ethan Conn, who caught the pass between a pair of Roswell defensive backs for the score just over three-and-a-half minutes in. The PAT was no good, however, leaving the score at 6-0.

Roswell High proceeded to ride senior running back Bryce Sanchez — who carried the ball 31 times for 189 yards against Artesia in district play — from their own 35 to the Artesia 30 on their first possession of the day. But from there, quarterback Manny Fuentez was twice wrangled in the backfield by the Orange Crush — once for a loss of seven yards by Josiah Rodriguez with an assist from Ayden Huffman and again for a loss of nine by Grant Johnson — to bring about a punt on fourth and 24.

After moving from their own 17 to midfield, however, a holding call would stymie the ‘Dogs’ next series, and on the ensuing punt, disaster struck. Eli Lynn blocked the attempt at the Bulldog 29, and Isaac Loya was there to scoop it up to give the Coyotes a start from the 18.

They didn’t look the gift horse in the mouth, scoring one play later on a four-yard Fuentez run to take a 7-6 lead with 2:22 to go in the first.

With the Roswell faithful now in full voice, the ‘Dogs needed a momentum shift, but they wouldn’t get it as the second quarter began, once again sputtering after being flagged for holding. That put the Coyotes back in control, and after a 31-yard run by Fuentez took the boys in red to a first and goal at the Artesia 10, it looked as though Roswell was poised to expand its lead.

The Crush stepped up, however, holding Sanchez to a short gain and sandwiching a false start by the Coyotes with a pair of incompletions. That forced the Coyotes to settle for a 29-yard field goal try that careened off the upright.

Things still weren’t looking good for the offense as Artesia’s next drive began with a fumble and recovery for a loss of eight, but a 15-yard toss from Estrada to Juan Diego Duran and a personal foul by Roswell helped push them to the 50. And after Galindo converted on fourth and three with a five-yard run behind a convoy comprised of offensive lineman Rickey Armendariz, wide out Matthew Saiz and Wesson, Estrada found Conn wide open down the middle for a 45-yard score.

Galindo would follow his same three blockers in for the conversion to recover Artesia’s previously lost point and put the ‘Dogs up 14-7 with 3:23 to go in the half.

And as is often the case for the boys in orange, that was ample time for one more.

A sack of Fuentez for a loss of five by Rodriguez and Kaden Grantham and an open-field tackle for a loss of four by Wesson forced a quick Coyote three-and-out. And after another holding call on Artesia that bumped the Bulldogs from their own 18 to the nine, Estrada launched a bomb to Duran, who caught the ball at the Artesia 38, knocked down his would-be tackler, and sprinted up the frenzied home sideline for the 91-yard touchdown.

Roswell’s final drive of the half ended in a big interception by Armendariz and a pair of personal fouls by the frustrated Coyotes to send the ‘Dogs up the ramp with a two-touchdown lead in hand, 21-7.

Roswell High came out swinging as the third quarter began, however, and despite continuing to get whistled for their chop-blocking habit, Fuentez and Sanchez put the offense on their backs and marched from their own 18 to the Artesia three on 12 plays, a cloud of dust, and five-and-a-half minutes chewed off the clock.

Sanchez would take it over the goal line from there to bring the Coyotes back within seven, 21-14. But the Bulldogs weren’t about to let Roswell build a head of steam, and following a kick return to the Coyote 41 by Phillip Finley, the offense went back to work.

“We obviously faced adversity a few times,” Finley said after the game. “We gave up a couple of big plays, some big drives, but I think we came back as a team and just all made plays like we knew we needed to.”

A pass to Cazares and a pair of Galindo runs took the ‘Dogs to their old nemesis, the Roswell red zone, and after a sack for a loss of five and a pair of incomplete passes, Artesia found themselves facing fourth and 15 from the 25… which was no longer the red zone, so they scored. And much rejoicing followed the pass from Estrada to Duran, who came back and scooped up the ball just inside the goal line to make it 28-14 with 2:55 to go in the third.

A hush fell over the east side of the stadium after Rodriguez pounced on a Sanchez fumble on the Coyotes’ first play from scrimmage. But it wouldn’t last long, as — on fourth and 20 from the Coyote 29 — Xai Carrasco picked an Estrada pass and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown to once again make it a one-score game as the fourth quarter began.

History continued to annoyingly repeat itself as a holding call set the Artesia offense back and forced a punt, but the Crush knew their part in the script by now: A sack of Fuentez, who tumbled backward with Rodriguez charging him from one side and Johnson from the other brought about a three and out.

And after a 57-yard punt return by Armendariz set Artesia up at the Coyote 17, the ‘Dogs would finally break the red-zone curse when, on second and goal from the 29 — we didn’t say they broke it easily — Duran cut away from two defenders and took an Estrada pass into the end zone to make it 35-21 with 6:13 remaining in the game.

At that point, things were feeling urgent again for the Coyotes, making what happened next more devastating still. Fuentez went down following an eight-yard pass and was helped off the field, only to re-enter the game one play later and suffer a more serious injury.

Roswell was able to get a first down from their pair of back-up quarterbacks, but with 4:30 left on the clock and the ball at their own 44, Grantham would strip the ball from the hands of Andrew Padilla and Rafael Orozco was there to recover.

From there, all that was left was to finish the job — and finish the row. A pair of first-down runs by Galindo and Cazares filled the bill, and the City of Champions set about celebrating Artesia’s first back-to-back state titles since the 2014/2015 seasons.

“Our kids really executed today,” head coach Jeremy Maupin said after the game. “Our defense played really, really well and our offense just made big play after big play — it was just a really good day today.”

“Before the game started, I was just trying to lock in and get my teammates locked in so we’d be ready to play,” Rodriguez said. “We just needed to come out strong and hard, and we did. And we got the win. It’s a great feeling, it really is.”

Artesia (12-1) finished with 375 yards of offense on the day to Roswell’s (12-1) 223, racking up 288 yards through the air and adding 87 on the ground.

Estrada closed out his senior season going 13 for 23 for all 288 of those yards and five touchdowns. Three of those sailed into the waiting arms of Duran, who was 4-160 receiving, and two to Conn, 3-76. Galindo went over 100 yards rushing on the contest, carrying the ball 21 times for 114.

In addition to the Coyotes’ low offensive output, the Crush racked up four sacks in the game for 34 negative yards and forced a trio of turnovers.

“We just knew what we had to come out and do today, and it went well,” said Wesson. “Our offense put it on, and we held them to enough stops to get the win.”

Roswell High brought a big crowd for its short trip down the 285, but the home-field advantage was strong with the Bulldogs Saturday. The SRO Sea of Orange was nothing short of deafening in its support, and the ‘Dogs definitely felt the energy.

“It’s the loudest game we’ve been a part of for sure,” said Estrada.

“It’s definitely the biggest crowd we’ve had, and having this game at home was just great,” said Jesse Armendariz. “You could tell Roswell was rattled by it, so it helped a lot.”

“It was so loud,” Maupin said. “It was awesome. I told the guys before we walked out here, after we warmed up, ‘Just wait — it’s standing room only and it’s gonna be loud, but we know how to play in that environment and we have to use that as an advantage.’ And they did a really good job of that.

“We’re so blessed to be in this community with this crowd and these people; it was just an awesome atmosphere.”

All that was left was to bask in the joy.

“What a great way to end my senior season,” said Rodriguez. “I’m just extremely proud of my boys and the coaches for helping us get the ring at the end of the season.”

“It felt great; it ended my senior season with a win over Roswell, so what could’ve been better,” said Wesson. “Me and my brothers get to celebrate this win, and it’s gonna be remembered.”

“It’s just such a surreal moment, going out like this with a bang with your friends; it just feels good,” said Finley. “There are such feelings of sadness and emotion, happiness — knowing this will be my last high-school football game, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to end any other way. There’s not much more to say but ‘Go, Bulldogs!'”

“Definitely surreal — like nothing I could ever imagine,” Estrada said. “It was awesome.”

“Just being there on the sideline at the end, getting hyped with my guys — we’ve been through three years together, and this was just a great way to end it,” said Jesse Armendariz.

“I’m speechless right now,” said Galindo. “I kind of want to cry happy tears because me and my brothers went through it all, and we didn’t stop. We kept on fighting to the very end, and we held onto the rope and finished it.”

“It’s a great moment, and I’ll definitely cherish this for the rest of my life,” said Rickey Armendariz, who said his thoughts as the final seconds ticked away turned to his mother. “I lost her at the beginning of the football season, and she’s just the first thing that went into my mind when that last buzzer went off.”

“Just all your memories come back of the years and these guys,” said Maupin. “I was telling them today, I was watching back through some old sophomore film, Nye and all these guys, and you just feel such a strong bond. And that’s what I want to do as a coach, and I think our staff does a really good job of that.

“We just love these guys, and we’re so proud of them. The finality makes you a little sad, but we’re just so proud of what they did today and what they’ve done all season, and to finish on top is just such a blessing.”

The Bulldog seniors open the 1 atop the Bulldog Bowl press box following Saturday’s championship. (Jennifer Palma – For the Daily Press)
Brienne Green
Daily Press Editor

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