JAL – Deee-fense! Deee-fense!
Defense? Wait, what?
Yes, defense dictated Saturday’s state 2A football championship game between Jal and Eunice, despite having two of the county’s most explosive offensive players – the Cardinals’ Conagher Pierce and the Panthers’ Alexavier Carreon – on the field.
And once the Cardinals’ offense was able to chip away a bit in the fourth quarter, they went on for a 28-15 victory over the Panthers at Jal High School, and captured the state title.
Eunice won a state bowl championship to end last spring’s abbreviated season, but as far as full-length fall seasons, Saturday’s win brought the Cardinals their fourth consecutive state title, and 16th overall, trailing only Artesia (30) and Lovington (18) in New Mexico state championships.
Eunice’s 16th title came after a long 2021 slog that began with an embarrassing season-opening loss to Raton in August, and a heartbreaking regular-season loss to Jal in October.
“It’s a testament to all the hard work and determination these kids show every day,” said Greg Jackson, who has been Eunice’s head coach for the Cardinals’ last two championships in 2018 and ‘19. “I’m so proud of these guys. They fought and battled and came out on top because they worked to be on top, and it’s a testament to them as young men.”
The state crown earned by Eunice Saturday was the Cardinals’ first since the summer 2020 poll that ranked them as the state’s best small-school program. Ending the first full campaign since then with another state crown was the perfect way of living up to that accolade.
“This is a really proud moment,” Cardinals senior quarterback Conagher Pierce said after his three touchdown passes to sophomore Ashton Thompson helped Eunice win on Saturday. “I want to give thanks to all my teammates who toughed it out. At the beginning of the season we lost the first game, and it took a lot of hard work and determination to get here.”
“Oh man, it’s exciting,” Eunice senior safety/receiver Zeke Benton said. “We won the bowl game last year, but it’s not the same as this, winning in Jal. There’s something special about it.”
It took a while, though, for it to be ‘special’ on Saturday, as Eunice held a slim 14-7 lead after the first, second and third quarters. The Cardinals’ defense, in fact, though iron-clad for most of the game, allowed the Panthers to glide down the field for a touchdown in nine plays on the game’s opening series. On the ninth play, with Jal facing third-and-goal from the Eunice 12, Carreon dumped a pass over the middle that Ethan Sandoval reeled in just short of the goal line, and he then tumbled backward into the end zone.
Isaiah Rodriguez booted the extra point, and just 5:25 into the game, Jal was up 7-0.
But that was all Eunice’s defense allowed until a 51-yard Jacob Lujan – to – Rodriguez touchdown bomb followed by a Sandoval two-point conversion run late in the fourth quarter, with the game out of reach.
In between, the Cardinals were containing Carreon, containing Lujan, containing pretty much everyone in a blue and gold uniform.
“Coach (Bobby) Reed and our defensive staff did an amazing job,” Jackson said, “and the kids executed at an extremely high level. Really, really good all the way across the board. From the first drive on, (the Panthers) couldn’t hardly breathe out there.”
The Cardinals’ offense found some breathing room in the first quarter, bouncing right back after Jal’s touchdown by marching 65 yards in just six plays for a score that came on Pierce’s 33-yard, fourth-and-eight pass to Thompson. The sophomore receiver did a good deal of the work, first reaching up to snag the ball at Jal’s 20, then running the distance into the left side of the Panthers’ end zone.
Eljan Woods’ extra point tied the game at 7 with 5:05 left in the first quarter.
Eunice’s second drive also ended with a touchdown. The Panthers’ preceding possession went nowhere, resulting in a punt from their own 15, and the Cardinals took over at the Jal 44, then drove steadily downfield. Facing second-and-10 from Jal’s 18, Pierce lofted a spot-on pass to Thompson in the right side of the end zone, and with another Woods extra point, Eunice took a 14-7 advantage with 1:56 left in the first quarter.
At that juncture of the game, it seemed like there might be a point-fest, the kind of offensive shootout each team has played in so many times this season. But, each defense went into brick-wall mode, and the score was still 14-7 at the end of the third quarter.
Eunice was on the march at that point, though, having reached Jal’s 16 on the third quarter’s final play, when Thompson hauled in a wobbly, high-arcing pass for a 29-yard gain.
And the Cardinals began the fourth quarter by closing the deal on that drive, as Micah Tippett weaved through seams in Jal’s defense for a 16-yard rushing touchdown. Another Woods extra point made it 21-7 just five seconds into the new period.
Tippett also ended Jal’s ensuing drive by deflecting a fourth-down pass, and after the Cardinals took over at their own 28, they wound up scoring two plays later in a thirdand-11 situation, when Pierce threw one up along the right sideline in Thompson’s direction, and the sophomore managed to get under it, gather it in, and soar down that sideline to complete a 73-yard scoring play.
Woods kicked his fourth extra point of the afternoon, stretching Eunice’s lead to 28-7 with just 4:52 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Soon, the Cardinals had prevailed 28-15 and finished their state championship season at 9-3. And after a good bit of celebration, their minds were already on 2022.
“We’ve got baseball season coming up,” said Benton, who was part of Eunice’s state runner-up baseball team last June.
“I try to look ahead of time,” Pierce said. “I’m ready to go for a state championship in baseball.”
Jackson’s mind is squarely on football, but he too is peering ahead.
“This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately-type business,” Jackson said. “So we’ve got to enjoy it, enjoy the spoils that come with it, but next year’s coming too. And we know that.”