The Bulldogs knew going into Saturday’s Class 5A state quarterfinal against St. Pius that the Sartans were a capable squad.
No. 7 Pius’ one-loss record had been diminished by fans, pundits, and the NMAA seeding and selection committee alike due to a schedule void of significant challenges, and their tight 28-20 win over District 4’s last-place team, Lovington Oct. 16 didn’t do much in the way of changing minds.
Thus, as the second-seeded ‘Dogs compiled a 21-0 first-half lead over the boys in black and gold, the game seemed to be going much the way everyone had anticipated.
Everyone, that is, but the Sartans.
Buoyed by a touchdown as time ran out on the second quarter that prevented the pre-intermission shutout, St. Pius exited the locker room for the second half a team on a mission. With workhorse junior quarterback Drew Ortiz leading the charge, the Sartans pulled within seven midway through the third, then knotted the game just prior to the fourth.
The game had begun anew.
As a Bulldog offense that had gone cold in the second half continued to stall on their first possession of the final quarter, turning the ball over on downs at the Sartan 16-yard line, the small but vocal St. Pius crowd was on its feet.
Pius had capped each of its second-half series to that point with a touchdown and, with help from a pass interference penalty, they were driving again.
On third and three near midfield, however, the Orange Crush stepped up, with Codey Scott, Cooper Hall and Jharyss Granger combining to drop Ortiz in the backfield for a loss of six and forcing the Sartans to punt for the first time since the early second quarter.
With just over six minutes left in the game, a score was vital. And this time, the ‘Dogs responded.
Kicking off the possession with an 18-yard pass from Justin Houghtaling to Daniel Hernandez, Artesia then turned running backs Isaiah Weideman and Robert Fernandez loose. The pair broke runs of eight and 11 yards respectively en route to the Pius 24, and following an eight-yard catch-and-run from Houghtaling to Ethan Duff, Weideman would do the rest.
The junior barreled from the Sartan 16 to the end zone on three carries to put the Bulldogs back in front with 3:12 remaining. The PAT, however, failed, leaving the door wide open for St. Pius.
What Artesia needed was a clutch play on defense. And senior corner Carlos Carrasco was only too happy to oblige.
On second and two from their own 39, Ortiz let fly, and Carrasco was there to leap in front of the intended receiver, securing the pick with 2:32 on the clock.
The turnover visibly deflated the Sartans, and Artesia was able to post back-to-back first downs on passes of 15 and 11 yards from Houghtaling to Matthews and Fernandez as the game fell under 1:30. From there, all that remained was to take a knee.
“We’re really excited that we’re playing another ballgame next week,” Artesia head coach Cooper Henderson said Saturday. “We’re one of four teams left, we did the things necessary to get there, and we’re excited about that.
“A game like today’s can help you have a better focus, and that’s what we’re going to concentrate on going forward into the semifinals.”
The ‘Dogs had swung the momentum their way on a big play early in the contest, as well. After forcing the Sartans to punt the game’s opening possession, Artesia was in the process of returning the favor. But the ball was dropped, and Miguel Martinez was there to pounce on it to set the offense back up at the Sartan 23.
A 15-yard pass from Houghtaling to Daniel Leon propelled the Bulldogs to a first and goal at the Pius eight, and following a toss to Fernandez for a two-yard gain, Houghtaling would find Weideman from the six to put Artesia on the board, 7-0, with 3:21 to go in the first.
The Crush would quickly facilitate a three-and-out, but once again, the ‘Dogs looked to be stymied and entered punt formation on fourth down from midfield. Carrasco nabbed the snap, however, on the fake and pitched a strike to fellow DB Caleb Brewer to give Artesia new life at the Pius 36.
Houghtaling hit Hernandez for a 24-yard gain and rushed for 10, and Weideman converted on fourth down to give the ‘Dogs first and goal. After recovering a fumble that sent them backward two yards, Houghtaling spotted Matthews for a three-yard touchdown that made it 14-0 with 8:38 remaining in the half.
Another St. Pius punt gave the Bulldogs 4:40 to expand their lead. Weideman delivered a nine-yard run and Houghtaling spread the ball around to Hernandez, David Barlow and Matthews on their way to the Sartan 31. The senior QB would loft his third and final touchdown of the day to Duff in the back of the end zone from there to give Artesia a 21-0 edge with 1:44 on the clock.
Pius needed every second of it but were not to be denied prior to the half, springing suddenly to life on a drive that saw Ortiz carry the ball three times for 34 yards and connect with three different receivers for 46 more. The QB called his own number from the two to make it 21-7 at the half.
As the ‘Dogs punted away their third-quarter possessions, Ortiz continued to conduct the Sartans’ comeback. The junior scored from six yards out to bring St. Pius within a touchdown and hit Dylan DiLorenzo for a 36-yard TD to tie.
But as the Crush regained control in the fourth, the furious rally came to an end, as did St. Pius’ season. The Sartans finish 10-2.
“I thought St. Pius played really well,” Henderson said. “I thought their skill people on both sides of the ball did a good job. Give them credit for the way the game went today.”
The Bulldogs finished the afternoon with 301 total yards of offense, 198 through the air and 103 on the ground. Houghtaling was 19 of 30 for 187 yards and three touchdowns and 9-31 on the ground. Fernandez carried the ball seven times for 40 yards and Weideman went 7-33. Duff led the ‘Dogs in receiving yards with four catches for 48 yards, followed by Hernandez (3-46) and Leon (3-38).
Ortiz was 19 of 27 passing for 161 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, and rushed 21 times for 79 yards and two scores. He was sacked six times on the day for a combined loss of 27 yards.
The Crush also logged a trio of tackles for a loss totaling eight yards and had two stops for no gain.
“Defensively, we’re still doing some things pretty consistently well, and that’s kind of carried us throughout the year,” said Henderson. “We’re pleased with that. We weren’t able to move the ball quite as consistently today as we’d have liked, but we were able to get it done when we had to.
“The turnovers were also no doubt big plays for us in winning the game.”
The Bulldogs improved to 10-1 with the victory and will move on to host No. 3 Piedra Vista at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28, at Bulldog Bowl. The Panthers (9-2) eliminated Roswell High from the playoffs Saturday at home by a final of 27-16.
In Friday night’s quarterfinal bouts, it was No. 1 Centennial over No. 8 Goddard, 53-18, and No. 4 Moriarty eking past No. 12 Farmington, 27-26. Centennial and Moriarty will meet at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27, in Las Cruces.
“This was a tough game, but tough games make you better, and we’re expecting this one to make us a better team in the coming week,” Henderson said. “We’ve been able to rise to the occasion throughout the year, and we’re expecting to continue to do that.”