EUNICE – The Eunice football team defeated Estancia 56-14 Saturday afternoon and booked its ticket to the Class 2A state championship game. be the fourth straight year the Cardinals have played in the state championship dating back to the 2015 season, with Eunice winning it all in 2017.
The Cardinals hosted the Estancia Bears at Cardinal Stadium in the third semifinal meeting between the two schools. The Cardinals have not lost to Estancia in the past two semifinals games and wanted to make it 3-0 against their opponent in the playoff.
The Cardinals kicked off to Estancia to start the Class 2A semifinal match. Estancia had a strong kickoff return sent back with a flag for holding.
Estancia’s offense started on its own 12 and in three plays moved the ball just five yards. The Cardinals defensive unit set the tone for the game, forcing Estancia to go three and out. After the Estancia punt, Eunice began its first offensive drive. The Cardinals needed five plays to open the scoring after a 29-yard run by running back Juan Sosa. After a successful extra point by kicker Gustavo Espinosa the Cardinals held a 7-0 lead with 7:45 left in the first quarter.
On the ensuing Estancia drive, the Cardinals defense forced them into a fourth-and-one situation. Estancia mismanaged the clock and was hit with a delay of game penalty forcing it back five yards and ended up punting the ball back to Eunice. The Cardinals offense went from their own 18 yard line all the way to Estancia’s
27. On a fourth-and-11, the Cardinals went for the first down, but came up two yards short on a pass from Mason Caperton to Evan McCalip. Estancia got the ball and scored on the second play of the drive an 81-yard run, making it 7-6 in the first quarter. That was the closest Estancia got to Eunice all day.
After the Estancia touchdown, it took Eunice 11 seconds to respond with its own touchdown, a 53-yard pass from Caperton to Avante Stevens. Eunice ended the first quarter leading 14-6.
The second quarter began exactly like the first. The Cardinals defense forced Estancia to punt after three plays. The Cardinals offense ran four plays to reach the end zone and celebrate another touchdown. Caperton threw a 52-yard pass to Michael Copeland to put the Eunice up 21-6. Estancia’s offense made eight plays in the drive that included a first down against Eunice. On turning over the ball, Eunice ran 10 plays that ended with Caperton making a 1-yard run and giving his team 28-6 lead.
Estancia came close to scoring before halftime; it used a four hand offs to have and a receiver tossed the ball down-field to the quarterback. On the next play Estancia’s running back made a 10-yard run into the end zone but the play was called back by a holding call against Estancia. The Cardinals defense made the adjustment and forced Estancia to turn the ball over on downs. Eunice went into the half leading 28-6, and had one foot in the state championship game.
The third quarter began with Eunice receiving the ball. In what has become a rare sight for the Cardinal fans, the offense was forced to punt after three plays. The Cardinals defense then forced Estancia to return the ball after three plays. Eunice’s offense drive lasted six plays before Caper-ton made a 1-yard run to put the team up 35-6. The Estancia offense went four and out on its next possession. The Cardinals made 12 plays in the drive, which ended with Sosa making a 15-yard run into the end zone and a 42-14 lead with 2:18, left in the third quarter. After the kickoff, Estancia scored on a 31-yard pass with 35 seconds left in the quarter. With a successful two-point conversion Estancia cut the lead to 42-12. That was the final time Estancia celebrated in the end zone.
Before the third quarter ended, Estancia had a successful onside kick recovery. To start the final quarter Estancia threw an interception to Felix Gonzales. The Cardinal’s offense ran two plays and saw Copeland celebrate in the end zone after a 67-yard pass. That put the lead at 48-12 with 10:50 left in the game and secured Eunice’s presence in the championship game. The Cardinals offense was not down and recovered an onside kick, which led to the final Cardinal touchdown of the game. After seven plays Hayden Dean scored on a 22-yard run to give the Cardinals a 56-14 semifinal victory at home.
After winning the semifinal match with Estancia, there was plenty of cheering and celebrating by the Cardinals players, coaches, and fans.
“It feels good it’s honestly a great honor,” said Cameron Santa Cruz on reaching the state championship game. “My whole high school career I have been to state championship, try to get coach a second state championship game under his belt.”
Cardinal’s Logan Gaskin said of the moment, “It feels great. We came in a year ago undefeated the plan was always to be in the state game and that’s what we strive for every year and that’s what we accomplished today.”
“I thought we played well, we really wanted to eliminate the big play and we didn’t do a really good job at that,” said Eunice head coach Ken Stevens on his team performance. “But outside of giving up big plays I though we played really well defensively and offensively, we did a great job at all phases of the game.”
When asked how his team has benefitted from playing in a championship game Stevens said, “I think our boys know what to expect in a big game, we have played in four straight years in a title game, they know what to expect and how to get ready.”
The Cardinals will use that experience as they will host Class 2A state championship game against Santa Rosa, and hope to complete another undefeated season with a championship.