EUNICE — Senior quarterback Mason Caperton and the Cardinals football team dominated in all facets of the game Saturday, chalking up a third straight state championship with a commanding 56-27 win over Texico at Cardinal Stadium.
Caperton and several other Cardinal seniors with title-game experience wrapped up their high school careers in impressive fashion, with a balanced running and passing attack, a stingy defense and several big plays including a 95-yard touchdown pass at the end, padding the 3,100-yard plus passing season for Caperton.
“That’s the way a champion should go out,” said Eunice head coach Greg Jackson.
Caperton had five touchdown passes, and one interception, to lead the passing attack, while senior running back Tayveon Mitchell had two touchdown runs from near midfield in the first half. Eunice rolled to a 35-13 halftime lead and never let the Wolverines come within reach of the Class 2A state title.
The Saturday afternoon win under sunny skies in Eunice was the third state championship for several Cardinal seniors, and the first Blue Trophy for first-year head coach Jackson.
“That’s the best, that’s why you do this,” Jackson said. “I’m so proud of the kids, so proud of the community. It was the absolute best.”
The Cardinals did make some unforced errors early, helping the No. 3 seeded Wolverines continue their opening drive on a couple of defensive penalties, leading to a touchdown that knotted the score at 7-7 in the first quarter.
But the Cardinals came out strong in the first half as Jackson had hoped with a “one hand washes the other” balanced running and passing game, putting up 21 points in the first quarter and 14 in the second quarter. Eunice tacked on another 21 points in the second half, beating Texico for the second time at home this season following a 34-19 win over the Wolverines in September.
The Cardinals got on top early thanks to good field position near midfield after Texico opened the game with an unsuccessful onside kick. After several running plays, Caperton found senior wide receiver Avante Stevens open in the end zone on a 3-yard pass that put Eunice up 6-0. The extra point from junior Gustavo Espinosa made it 7-0.
Offside and face mask penalties on Eunice extended Texico’s opening possession. Wolverine junior quarterback Gabe Dickerman threw his first pass of the game on a third-and-2, connecting 20 years at the goal line with junior wide receiver Anders Nelson for a touchdown. The extra point from senior Manuel Loera knotted the game at 7-7 with 5:43 left in the first quarter.
On Eunice’s second play of their next possession, Mitchell took a snap up the middle, broke a tackle and scampered into the open field untouched for a 53-yard touchdown run. The extra point from Espinosa made it 14-7 with 5:25 left in the first quarter.
The Cardinals stalled the next Wolverine possession, forcing Texico into a fourth-and-6 at their 27-yard line. A high snap to Nelson who was back to punt resulted in Nelson getting smothered by the Cardinal defense for a turnover on downs.
On the next play, Caperton found junior Hayden Dean in single coverage over the middle in the end zone for an 11-yard TD pass. Espinosa’s extra point made it 21-7 with 3:00 to go in the first quarter.
The Cardinal defense committed a couple of penalties on Texico’s next possession, but the defense stiffened up, resulting in a turnover on downs when the Cardinals stopped a reverse in the backfield.
Four plays later, Caperton threw to Dean near the first-down line on third-and 7. Dean then weaved through traffic, using his teammates as screens in the open field for a 44-yard TD pass. The extra point from Espinosa made it 28-7 with 6:09 left in the second quarter.
The Wolverines scored on an 80-yard drive on their next possession when Dickerman connected with Nelson over the middle. Nelson cut to the right and outran two Cardinal defenders for a 53-yard touchdown pass. The PAT from Loera was wide right, leaving the score 28-13 with 3:32 left in the second quarter.
A short kick off from Texico backfired on the Wolverines. On first-and-10 at the Texico 47-yard line, Mitchell took a handoff to the left side and looked to run into traffic while carrying the ball like a loaf of bread in the backfield. Mitchell then found a seam on the left side and ran 47 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. Espinosa’s extra point made it 35-13 with 3:02 left in the second quarter.
Eunice got the ball back late in the second quarter, but was unable to find pay dirt after getting into the red zone, as the first half ended with the Cardinals up 35-13.
The Cardinal defense forced a turnover on downs on Texico’s first possession of the second half, and Eunice returned the favor with its first punt of the game later in the third quarter after cheers of “run the ball” could be heard by the Eunice faithful looking for the Cardinals to run out the clock.
The Wolverines then mounted a 66-yard touchdown drive, capped by 9-yard touchdown run from Dickerman, who took the snap over the left guard and broke a couple of tackles for a touchdown. A 2-point conversion run from sophomore running back Zeke Soliz came up short, leaving the score 35-19 with 3:36 left in the third quarter.
Eunice wasted little time scoring again after Mitchell picked up 42 yards on a screen after breaking some tackles. On first-and-10 at the Texico 20, Dean took a handoff to the left side and ran for a touchdown. The extra point from Espinosa made it 42-19 with 2:47 left in the third quarter.
The Wolverines drove downfield on their next possession, until Stevens tipped a pass from Dickerman and brought the ball in for an interception in the Eunice red zone.
A nice catch along the sideline from senior wide receiver Cooper Warren in double coverage sparked an 85-yard Eunice drive early in the fourth quarter. On first-and-10 at the Texico 28, Caperton pitched the ball forward to sophomore wide receiver Micah Tippett. Tippett found a seam for a 28-yard TD pass. Espinosa’s extra point made it 49-19 with 10:24 left in the fourth quarter.
Texico did not give up in the fourth quarter, marching into the Eunice red zone. The Wolverines capped the 75-yard drive when Dickerman took a snap to the left side. He was seemingly tripped up at the line of scrimmage, but remained on his feet, scampering 21 yards for a touchdown. A 2-point conversion pass from Dickerman to sophomore halfback Brayden Bender was low, but good enough, making the score 49-27 with 7:31 to go.
The Cardinals chewed up the clock in the fourth quarter, but turned the ball over when Caperton was intercepted at the Texico 20-yard line after throwing on the run with 5:50 to play.
The Wolverines marched into the Eunice red zone, setting up a fourth-and-goal at the Eunice 4-yard line. A screen pass from Dickerman was incomplete, resulting in a turnover on downs.
On third-and-11, Caperton threw to Stevens over the left tackle. Stevens ran the ball 95 yards for a touchdown. The extra point from Espinosa made it 56-27 with 45 seconds to go.
“We run that play a lot, that’s our tunnel screen, and it just always bangs for a big play,” Caperton said.
The Wolverines still wouldn’t give up on the final drive, but time elapsed as the Eunice players rushed the field to celebrate their third consecutive state title.
“That’s how champions finish, that’s how champions work,” Jackson told his team immediately after the victory. “You will be a state champion for the rest of your life and nobody can take it from you. I’m so dang proud of you. There ain’t nothing better than a Eunice Cardinal.”
The Eunice senior class has played in the state title game their entire career. Caperton entered Saturday’s game with 3,131 passing yards and 45 TDs with five interceptions on the season.
“I feel really pleasured to end the career the way I did and go out with all my friends I’ve grown up playing football with,” Caperton said. “Going out with three championships is something special to me and I’ll always remember it.
“My teammates are beyond the best. I’ve got the best line in the state, the best receivers in the state, best defense in the state. Everybody on this team is some dogs and I know everyone has raw talent. Tayveon Mitchell balled out today and I’m so proud of him and everything he’s done.”
Mitchell said the running game sets up the passing game.
“At the beginning of the year, we threw the ball more than we ran and we finally got a couple kids back and we were all able to run the ball,” Mitchell said. “We all came in here with kind of a big head, but we also have a big heart and we all know exactly what to do and we came out and executed.”
The Cardinals finish the season 12-1 (3-0), with the only blemish being a 33-26 road loss to Class 3A Tularosa in mid-September. Texico finished 8-5 (3-0).
The state championship is the 15th overall for the Cardinals, good for third most in the New Mexico. Eunice trails only Artesia (30) and Lovington (18) in football championships