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Eunice football ranked top in the state

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The Eunice football program has 15 state title banners hanging in the rafters, the third most in state history (first in 1957 and the most recent last season), 24 championship appearances the second most in New Mexico history, is currently tied for sixth place with 11 other schools for consecutive state championships at three (including an active current three-peat streak), and is tied for the sixth longest winning streak (25) in New Mexico.

The program can boast about many things. The Cardinals have one coach tied for eighth in most state titles won (five) in

Tom Grubber, a four-year starting quarterback in Mason Caperton who finished his career with the fifth most passing yards in a career (9,898), tied for seventh at most passing touchdowns thrown in a game (seven), is sixth for most passing touchdowns in a season (51), and third in most career passing touchdowns thrown (129). Then there are receivers Hayden Dean and Avante Stevens. Dean is tied for first in most touchdown receptions in a game (five) and tied for seventh in most touchdown receptions in a season (20). Stevens is tied for second in most touchdown receptions in a season (24) and tied for ninth in most career touchdown receptions (33). Additionally, on defense, Stevens is tied for sith in career interceptions (19).

This rich history and tradition is why the Eunice Cardinals were selected as one of the 50 best small town high school football programs according to Tony Adame, a writer for the website Stadium Talk. Eunice is listed at No. 27 on his list.

Adame listed 15 notable players and eight coaches who have been part of the programs success. Two former Eunice coaches Gene Strickland (2000-04, one title) and Ken Stevens (2015-18, two titles), as well as current head coach Greg Jackson (2018-present, one title) spoke about the achievement and honor of the program and community being selected to such a prestige list.

“It’s a pretty awesome situation and I was shocked when I got their (Stadium Talk) email,” Jackson said. “It’s very nice to be recognized for the town’s tradition and the program’s tradition, and we just try to keep moving forward.

“I don’t know exactly how they ranked it or don’t know their process and how they went about doing that. But just to be on that list you know you are doing something right it doesn’t happen on accident. It’s not just happen stance, a lot of factors go into that,” Jackson continued. “Having great athletes is the number one thing, having great coaches is number two, and having community support and administrative support in place to make sure you can produce at the highest level. To have all those factors come together for so long is pretty rare and we are very honored.”

“That’s an awesome recognition for the community in Eunice,” Stevens added. “They have been good in balance, football with baseball for a number of years over there in Eunice. You can go all the way back to the 50s and they have been winning state championships in that small town. They produce winners over there in Eunice.”

“I think it’s pretty awesome,” Strickland said. “As a high school player from the state of New Mexico from a smaller school, playing college football in the state of New Mexico, recruiting for college football, and coaching it at higher education and coming back to New Mexico to coach, you always say we always get overlooked. We are right next door to big brother in Texas and we are the little brother so to speak. To have Eunice and Eunice High School named in that top 50 is pretty special.

“It really speaks to the community. Eunice is a great place to be and we loved our time in Eunice as a family,” Strickland continued. “Loved the people of Eunice and still have some really good friends in Eunice, some are colleagues and some are literally friends outside of working. That’s really the spirit of Eunice and who they are, they are a blue collar go to work type of people. They really don’t take adversity as a barrier, adversity is a challenge.”

The Cardinals are currently the defending back-to-back Class 2A state champions and three-peat state title winners with the 2017 Class 3A title. They have also played in every state title game since 2015. Much of that credit goes to the talented players on the roster.

“It shows that hard work pays off,” Jackson said. “When you buy into the process of working hard and putting in all the hours and reps, and making sure your attendance is always stellar, and you can do great things. Having talent is one thing but, there is a lot of talent out in the world that people have wasted for those kids, for that list of people, and for a lot of people who didn’t make the list that made all the state championships and success happen. They didn’t waste their talent and made the most out of it when they had it. That’s a true testament to them as people. I have seen it for a lot of years, the most wasted thing in the world is talent and they didn’t waste theirs and that is a testament to their work ethic.”

Six players on the list were part of the last three titles and played in the state title game every year of their high school career. They played all four years under Stevens or played three with Stevens and finished with Jackson. The current Cardinal coach praised the players finished their senior year under his leadership as unselfish and having a team first mentality.

“They just put the team first and they are team first guys,” the Cardinals coach said. “Anything they could do to help the team whether it was something as simply as being on the punt team, which isn’t a glamorous position, but I never had a problem with our best kids wanting to be out there. Usually a lot of programs try to hide their lesser players on special teams and our best players want to be on special team. They want to be on the field and play every single down.”

“I don’t want to say they put Eunice on the map. There were people who came before them that won state championships who helped get this notoriety for the whole community,” Stevens said. “I think the guys I got to coach, I think what they did, Cameron (Santa Cruz) and those guys put the program back where it was expected to be and they met the standards that were set by the people who came before them. They met those standards and in some cases extended those standards and I think it’s a great recognition for them and I think it’s a great deal that those kids can look back on and see that ranking and say they were part of it.”

“To be a small high school in the state of New Mexico and continue to strive to have the success that they had is pretty special,” Strickland added. “Because those kids come to work everyday and it’s the work ethic that’s been instilled for generations in that community. Those kids come to practice and they are hungry to get better, they are hungry to do what they need to do to put their name up on the back of those wall of champions in the gym. That’s something pretty unique is each one of those boards is signed on the back by that team and they get to go up and slide that board in, and that’s something those kids look forward to. They have uncles, brothers, and dads, and grandparents who have been a part of that. It’s a pretty unique little community.”

Strickland also took the time to talk about some of the players he coached.

“I think about some of those folks in my time who I had as student-athletes specifically that year we won state,” he said. “Ryan Dean, Jesse Contreras, Nic Thompson, Anthony Pender, a ton of kids and one thing I think is unique about that community and the program is who don’t hear them talking about those kids by name. You hear them talking about the championship team of 2000 and the championship runs of the 60s, 70s, and most recently with coach (Ken) Stevens there. It’s interesting to see the lineage play out, David Lynn was a long time coach there and a good friend of mine. Both his boys are football coaches…to watch that lineage play itself out is really neat.”

Jackson added that the desire to be so good at football is impressive and why they have a rich tradition of success. It also shows that the players can be successful with any head coach as Jackson noted most of the teams on the list had maybe two or three head coaches, but Eunice had the most at eight.

Adame gave a reason for Eunice being ranked No. 27 from winning titles in almost every decade, a 25-game winning streak, five straight title appearances, and going 36-1 from 2017-19. He mentioned one player who in his four seasons was a vital piece to Eunice’s success in quarterback Mason Caperton. For Jackson winning Eunice’s 15th title was because of his quarterback’s talent and leadership.

“It was a true gift coaching Mason,” he said. “Mason was a dream because he did everything the right way. You told him to do something one time and he got it done exactly the way it was suppose to be done. He took coaching well and he also thought through his process at a very high level and very mature level. I have coached some great ones and been around some great ones, and Mason has to go down on the list as one of the great high school quarterbacks in New Mexico history. He has to be in everybody’s top five because of everything he has accomplished for so long.”

In his final season Caperton threw for 51 touchdowns passes and Jackson praised the work of his receivers.

“They really started to understand how to be selfless receivers,” he said. “Which is so rare, as you hear about receivers in the NFL or college about being ‘me’ guys who always want the ball and are always open. These guys weren’t and they went out there and did what they were asked to do, blocked extremely well, were selfless in the fact that they were able to do whatever it took. The just reward was the fact they were open a lot and caught the ball and they got to be superstar athletes with the ball in their hand. Avante (Stevens) goes out with his last play in his high school career has a 96 yard touchdown in the state championship game. These guys every single day if they dropped the ball their other teammates where on them. I didn’t have to get on them their where hard on themselves to make sure they were as close to perfect and performing at the highest level cause that was the expectation.”

During his tenure at Eunice, Stevens and the Cardinals played in four straight title games winning the last two in 2017 and 2018. The former Cardinals and current Hobbs football coach believes the success he had with the team begins from with in the community and then to his players.

“I think it all goes back to the community of Eunice,” he said. “Most of those kids that you are talking about and I had the privilege of coaching while I was there, their moms, dads, and cousins played on state titles. It’s a community culture and I don’t want to say its bred into them, but it’s expected. You have seen it done before. You know that it can be done because you have family members and people you know do it and you know that expectation. And winning state championships is part of that culture there, in that community, and those guys playing four in a row is just a great high school experience. I’m just thankful that I had the opportunity to be a part of that and be around those kids, it was a blessing.”

When each of the coaches took the position of leading the Cardinal football program, they knew of the history of success and if they faced any pressure.

“I knew what it was coming into it,” Jackson said. “But you don’t get any diamonds without pressure. You almost embrace that and you much rather have the high community support and the high administrative support knowing the expectations of what you are going to produce is very high than the opposite. No coach wants to walk into that situation. It was a great opportunity, I loved it, I loved every minute of it, and if I had to do it over again I would appreciate it more in the moment but hindsight is 20/20 as you are trying to do a job and a really good job. But I hope to be in Eunice for as long as they will have me. I have fallen in love with the community, town, people, and it’s been a great move for me and my family.”

“I knew stepping in there that Eunice had a long history of being successful,” Stevens said. “I was up for the challenge and like I always told people that I want to coach somewhere where there is expectations to win and expectations to do well. I never really thought about it as pressure I just thought about meeting expectations.”

“There is no doubt it (in pressure of taking over program),” Strickland said. “When I actually got the call, we lived in Midland prior to moving to Eunice and I was teaching science and coaching football, basketball, and track. I actually got a phone call and a couple members from the community asked me to apply for the position and I wasn’t fresh out of college but I was just beginning my high school coaching career. One of the comments was we just came off a state championship so don’t screw this up. We were fortunate to repeat that year. Gerald Burns was immediately before me as head coach and long time assistant of David Lynn but Gerald Burns handed over that team that was in a great position. It was a comfortable environment to step into because those kids already knew each other, there was a spirit of team work already developed, while at the same time they knew what it was going to take to get the job done.”

Each coach has left a mark in the football programs’ tradition and success, with state titles and continuing a culture of success. Jackson, Stevens, and Strickland each looked at what their time with the Cardinals meant to them and their impact.

“It’s validating and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” Jackson said. “It’s validating as a coach you know that everybody is trying to accomplish what you just got done. Nobody sets out saying ‘hey guys lets just try to be .500 this year’ everybody goes out and says ‘lets try to win a state championship’, but not everybody gets it done. To do that it’s validating as a coach and that’s the way I proved to the people who hired me right. I proved that they made the right choice.”

“I’m thankful to the Lord and the people of Eunice and the community there to been able to be a part of that,” Stevens said. “To allow me to be part of the community and allow me to be the head coach for four years. I’m thankful for the kids and their hard work and it was a blessing and I enjoyed my time there. I’m just thankful to everybody in that community and I thank god for that opportunity.”

“It’s very humbling quite honestly,” Strickland said. “I know that the work we put in as a coaching staff was only a small fraction of the amount of work those kids put in. To know how much work those kids put in, 20 years ago now, is pretty special. I see those kids now and they have kids of their own that in programs that are in athletics in sports and be able to follow those kids to this day is pretty special. Its neat to have to have my name up there with all of those other coaches, with some that I don’t even know some I know very well like Greg Jackson the current head coach is going to continue to do good things there. I think Ken (Stevens) moving over to Hobbs, we continue to be excited by the experience he brings and the climate he brings to the kids on the football team. Yes its humbling to be part of that group and realizing that there was a ton of work that happened outside of the amount of work the coaching staff did.”

All three coaches believed the success of the football program and being selected on the list is more a validation for the community. Each coach believes without the community the Cardinals would not what they are now, one of the 50 best football program from a small town.

“I think it’s a tremendous point of pride for the community,” Jackson said. “In a normal year our 10 game schedule is the most highly anticipated 10 weeks on the calendar. To be recognized for that is a tremendous point of pride for them. Our fans and community members where either players or parents of players at one point in time or another so they feel highly vested in what we are doing. That’s why we have such great community support so when you end up on a list like that its not the coaches, its not the players, its everything all those factors have to come together so everybody should feel a tremendous amount of pride about being recognized for being on a list like that.”

“It takes a lot to win a state championship and it takes a lot to get on that list that they are on so I think it’s a community thing and impacts the community and the team,” Stevens said. “I think it gives the whole community something to be proud of from their years and years of excellence, and they deserve it and it’s a whole community thing.”

“It truly speaks to that as a whole,” Strickland said. “Successful programs, and specifically successful football programs, they are not successful unless their community is behind them. It’s a big sport when it comes to all the logistics involved and you don’t see successful football programs that don’t have their community behind them. It’s a truly a gem in that community and it’s also something that they expect to be successful. We work hard and that is something we all grow up learning, you work hard you should expect to be successful. Those kids know that going to school each and everyday in the classroom, we didn’t have issues in the classroom. Those kids took care of business, graduation rates those kids took care of business. Out on the football field, that type of work ethic translated onto the football field and vice versa.”

Adame’s list selected only one small school from each state and Strickland believes the selection of Eunice, shows all the other small schools in New Mexico what it takes to be successful and validates the effort of a small town like Eunice.

“It very much validates that,” he said. “How does it do that? I think that is probably an answer left to each of those small schools. Is how do we make our mark on history? I think about the Animas of days gone by and the winning program they had in football there. Programs in Artesia and Lovington, my alma mater, the number of championships that show up in this part of the state on the gridiron is pretty special. To validate that work ethic these kids have put in really speaks to how that community continues to thrive as we go through any number of things. Currently in a pandemic and to continue to see Eunice thrive in this environment where quite honestly small communities are suffering in great ways. School districts in small communities are suffering in great ways and continuing to see Eunice continue to thrive throughout the decades of history that have been in their past, only gives me great confidant in their days ahead.”

The Cardinals return to the gridiron to defend their back-to-back Class 2A state titles on Feb. 26 on the road against Lea County opponent Lovington.

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