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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Bulldog soccer falls to Lovington in out-of-sync effort at Mack

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In New Mexico, every coach has likely had nightmares about making the playoffs only to see themselves matched up with a district opponent in the first round.

It seems to happen with regular frequency to teams in the Southeast portion of the state in particular. It happened over the weekend to the Bulldog soccer team. And unfortunately, the boys in orange fell victim to the curse of playing the same team repeatedly in a short span of time.

The eighth-ranked ‘Dogs fell by a lopsided final of 4-0 Tuesday at the Mack Chase Athletic Complex to No. 9 Lovington, with whom they split during regular district play and against whom they’d most recently competed just a week prior.

Pitting the newly minted District 4-AAAA Champion Bulldogs against one of their D4 rivals first rattle out of the box was an eyebrow-raising choice by the NMAA Seeding and Selection Committee. Of further note is the fact that MaxPreps — the national prep sports website upon which many feel the NMAA has come to rely a bit too heavily — lists Goddard, not Artesia, as the D4 title winner, which may have influenced rankings in the state coaches’ poll.

This year’s seeding will be further discussed in next Thursday’s Daily Press. The ultimate outcome, of course, can’t be reversed.

“It is what it is,” head coach Phillip Jowers said Wednesday. “Lovington beat us, and congrats to them.”

The end to the Bulldogs’ season was in no way indicative of what the team achieved over the course of 2023. The team finishes with a solid record of 12-8-1 and went 4-2 in district play en route to taking the crown in dramatic fashion Oct. 26 with an overtime win over Portales.

But the tone was unfortunately set early Tuesday when the Wildcats scored on Artesia just seconds into the game.

“From there, it wasn’t like they were just coming at us the whole game,” Jowers said. “We had our moments. The last 20 minutes of the first half, it looked like it was going to be a game. But then when they scored their second goal, it was like a glimpse back into the past, and we had players who just did not rise to the occasion.”

The past to which Jowers refers are the years during which the Bulldogs struggled for any measure of success. Those years are gone, but the ‘Dogs still find themselves haunted by them at times. The missing ingredient right now is finding confidence in their new identity as a perennial contender.

“We, as a team, are not used to being at a higher level,” said Jowers. “We’re still getting comfortable with the idea of being in big games. But I don’t think any other boys’ team in Artesia history has hosted three playoff games in a row or even gone to the tournament three years in a row. It’s more of an accomplishment than they realize.”

The team is disappointed, but Jowers sees an opportunity to get his athletes even more suited to the idea of success.

“Putting us against Lovington for a third time, that was a mental block for the boys for sure,” he said. “But at the end of the day, if we’re ranked one through four next year, we don’t have any of these problems. We achieved our goals this year. We wanted to have a winning record, win district, make it to the playoffs, and host a first-round game. Those are all goals we set as a team.

“So next year, we can say we want to achieve those goals and then set a new goal of being one through four, and we want to have a bye through the first round, and we want to win state.”

The opportunity will certainly be there, as Artesia retains the majority of its starters and key players, saying goodbye to just a pair of seniors in Ethan Bunt and Diego Zamarron.

“We’re going to miss them,” Jowers said. “I have no complaints, and I’m seriously so proud of everything those seniors and this team have accomplished. We broke through the glass ceiling of making the tournament consistently, and now that we’ve broken that ceiling, we’re going to break that curse of the first round and get ourselves in the top four. We can set a higher standard because of these guys, and I’m proud of them.”

Jowers himself also has plenty to be proud of, having helmed his first district championship as a head coach, seen the program through growing pains to the level it’s at now, and having been asked to coach in this year’s Class 4A Boys’ All-Star Game.

“For me personally, as a coach, it’s been a good year, and it feels good,” he said. “I’m excited about the future, and I know the guys are, too. So we’re going to take a little time off, obviously the guys who play winter and spring sports are going to do that, but then I think everybody already has next season on their mind and everybody’s going to be super excited to get to work again when that times comes.”

Brienne Green
Daily Press Editor

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