Artesia’s football program has always sought to schedule a test as it heads into the midway point of its season — a tough bout with a generally higher-classification opponent that can showcase strengths and expose weaknesses in equal measure.
Over the past few years, Class 6A Cleveland has certainly fit the bill.
The Storm aren’t the three-time-defending champions of 6A by accident. They’re big, they’re skilled, and they’re loaded with talent. They’re well coached, disciplined and fundamentally sound. But all of the above are exactly what the Bulldogs are looking for to help them ramp up their preparations for the games that count.
“They’re the best team in the state for a reason,” head coach Jeremy Maupin said Wednesday. “Year in, year out, they’ve had really good players. And while I think the last couple of years they’ve had a lot of good individual players, this year they’re just a really good overall team.
“Which kind of, in some ways, makes them a little scarier than in other years.”
Cleveland is currently 3-1 on the season, their lone loss coming Sept. 1 at the hands of Amarillo, Texas, at Lightning Bolt Stadium in Rio Rancho, 28-27. They opened with near-identical wins over Centennial (27-8) and La Cueva (27-7), and they spent last Friday lambasting Las Cruces High at the Field of Dreams, 42-13.
Last year’s meeting between the ‘Dogs and Storm in Rio Rancho was an offensive marathon, with Artesia compiling over 400 yards to Cleveland’s nearly 700 in a 61-33 Storm win. Not many of Cleveland’s skill players return from that 2022 squad. Only senior running back Harris Mbueha made the stat book last year with nine carries for 18 yards and a touchdown.
A new lineup often means trying out different things, and the Storm has definitely been keeping to that norm.
“Coach [Jourdan] Rodriguez said they’ve been in almost 30 different formations in four games,” said Maupin. “They’re very multiple. They can bring a lot of different guys in. They’re running the ball about 70 percent of the time, which is probably a little bit more than they had in previous years, but they’re running a lot of different looks to create match-ups.
“So it causes a lot of issues. You’ve got to get lined up, and you’ve got to make sure you’re sound in a lot of different ways, so I think they have a good game plan there.”
Defensively, the Storm are stout, with 6’3″, 220-pound Division-I prospect Stratton Shufelt leading the charge.
“Their two inside linebackers are really good,” Maupin said. “Stratton Shufelt has Division-I offers from all over the nation. He’s a really good player. He moves side to side really well and makes a lot of tackles for them. Then [Isaac] Medrano is really good as well. He may even be a little more athletic in some ways than Strat, so you know they’re both really good.
“Their defensive line and offensive line are big strengths. They’re big, they move well, they’re strong… it’s just one of those teams where it’s hard to find some flaws.”
But the same can be said of the Bulldogs.
After kicking off their 2023 campaign outscoring Carlsbad, Hobbs and Belen 148-13, the ‘Dogs got more of a challenge out of Deming last week on the road but settled in for a healthy 28-point win against 5A’s fifth-ranked team.
And while MaxPreps may have taken some of the intrigue out of Friday’s match-up — for those who give more credence to MaxPreps than it’s probably due, anyway — the showdown at Bulldog Bowl will still be a battle between 5A and 6A’s top-ranked teams as far as the NMOTSC coaches’ poll is overwhelmingly concerned.
MaxPreps’ computer-generated polls gave Roswell High a hefty amount of credit for defeating Los Lunas last week, bumping them into No. 1 in 5A above Artesia and into the No. 2 spot regardless of classification that the ‘Dogs had occupied last week.
Still, the eyes of the state will be firmly fixed on the Bowl tomorrow night. And anyone counting out the boys in orange may be counting their chickens before they’re hatched.
“We’re excited about the opportunity,” said Maupin. “It’s always good for us to play these guys because we always get better. I think we’ve had a really good week of practice, and the boys are real upbeat. We pulled some quotes and some things that people have said online — even Artesia fans — and really what it comes down to is there’s not a lot of people outside of our room that thinks we can win.
“One guy said, ‘I hope they even keep it competitive,’ and he was from Artesia. But our big thing this year has been making sure that, in this room, we don’t believe anybody can beat us. That’s the mentality we want to create here. Just shut down the outside noise and play good football.
“And if we can play good, mistake-free football, we’re going to be in this game and giving ourselves an opportunity to win.”