The only commute an undefeated No. 1 football seed should have for a state championship game is from its home locker room out to its home field.
But, it was all good for Jal’s football team anyway on Friday night, good and cold, but all good. The top-seeded Panthers, who had to go on the road due to the NMAA’s alternate sites rule, made their trek to Texico High School well worth it when they led the second-seeded Wolverines from start to finish in Friday’s state 2A championship game and won 41-21. In the process, Jal won the program’s first state title since 1999.
It was a long trip to end a long championship drought, a trip to play in absolutely frigid temperatures, but no worries all around. Hats, gloves and blankets for the Jal fans packed into the visitors’ bleachers, a blue trophy for the Jal players and coaches.
“Oh wow, it’s kind of surreal,” said Jal head coach Dusty Giles, whose team finished the championship season at 13-0. “We put in a lot of work, we put in a lot of effort. This is where we wanted to be. And to go out and get it, and get it done the way we did, we’ve got to be real pleased.”
“It feels unreal. The feeling that’s going through my body right now is just unreal,” Panthers senior quarterback/defensive end Alexavier Carreon said after rushing for four touchdowns and throwing a scoring pass in his team’s victory. “There’s no feeling like this.”
“Oh man, it feels surreal, to be honest. It doesn’t feel like we just won a state championship, it feels fake,” Jal senior running back/free safety Jacob Lujan said after supplying a rushing touchdown and two interceptions to his team’s cause. “We came out here tonight and we did our job. It feels great.”
The Panthers had a slow start against Texico when the teams met on the same field last month, and had to rally in that game for a 41-35 victory. Friday, they were able to dictate most of the game, and execute well by pounding and pounding and pounding the ball down Texico’s throats.
“We looked at what happened in the last game,” Giles said. “We felt like if we could block it up a little different, and do some things a little different on the offensive side, we could get some things rolling.”
They rolled to a touchdown on the game-opening possession, capping it with a three-yard Carreon scoring run. Isaiah Rodriguez booted the extra point to give Jal a 7-0 lead with less than five minutes gone by in the first quarter.
After Jal’s defense forced the Wolverines to go three-and-out on their ensuing possession, the Panthers marched 80 yards for a touchdown in just six plays. The first five were: an 11-yard run by Carreon, a 14-yard Lujan run, consecutive six-yard runs by Carreon, and then a seven-yard Carreon run that had Jal facing a second-and-four situation from the Texico 35. On that play, Lujan took a handoff in the middle of the field and cut left for a 35-yard touchdown burst.
The extra point attempt was wide left, but the Panthers had a 13-0 advantage with 2:10 remaining in the first quarter.
Jal almost recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, but Texico managed to secure the ball and keep possession. Not for long, though, because on the first play of the Wolverines’ new possession from their own 33, Lujan collected his first interception of the night, setting his team up at the Texico 38.
After Carreon carried for two yards on first down, he rushed for the remaining 36 on second down, bolting for a score. And though the extra point was no good, the Panthers had a 19-0 lead with 1:11 still to play in the first quarter.
At that point, it seemed like Jal was storming to an easy victory, perhaps a running clock, maybe even a 50-point abbreviated mercy-rule game.
Not so fast. The Wolverines quickly showed why they were good enough to reach the championship game when on first down of their next series, junior quarterback Cade Figg stretched a keeper into a 77-yard touchdown run. After adding Taye Smith’s extra point, Texico narrowed the margin to 19-7 with 56.5 seconds left in the first quarter.
Jal, though, would not let the Wolverines build any momentum. On the Panthers’ next series, they traveled 75 yards for a touchdown in 12 plays, a drive they initially kept afloat when Carreon bulled his way forward to convert a fourth-and-two from the Jal 33. The drive was seemingly over when Carreon was punting on fourth-and-11 from the Wolverines’ 46, until a running-into-the-kicker penalty gave Jal a first down at the Texico 31.
And the Panthers wasted no time capitalizing. On that first-down play, Carreon lofted a pass to tight end Ethan Sandoval, who made an over-the-shoulder catch and scored a touchdown with 6:58 remaining in the second quarter.
Carreon, despite being tripped up on a two-point conversion run, still managed to dive into the end zone, giving his team a 27-7 advantage.
The Wolverines tried to extend their next possession with a fake punt, but the Panthers wouldn’t allow it, thwarting the play at Texico’s 36 with 5:37 remaining in the first half.
The Wolverines, however, did score on their following possession, with a 15-yard pass from Figg to tight end Kyle Gonser. A blocked extra point kept the margin at 27-13, but it was a two-score game nonetheless with 32.5 seconds left before halftime.
Jal tried to reclaim some momentum to start the second half, and was successful, booting an onside kick that was recovered by Panthers sophomore Coby Vargas at Texico’s 46. Jal then sliced through Texico’s defense, driving to the Wolverines’ 7-yard line on five Carreon runs. The Wolverines’ defense stiffened, though, and forced the Panthers into five more Carreon runs to cover those seven yards for the score, but he did, finishing the drive with a one-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal.
Rodriguez kicked the extra point to give Jal a 34-13 lead with 5:51 left in the third quarter.
What turned out to be Jal’s final scoring drive of the night began in the third quarter at Texico’s 43 and ended in the fourth, eight plays later, with an eight-yard Carreon touchdown run. Another Rodriguez extra point had Jal up 41-13 with 8:24 to go in the fourth quarter.
The Wolverines made the score a bit less lopsided with an eight-yard Bryce Cooper touchdown catch and a two-point conversion run by Smith, but just 1:01 remained in the fourth quarter, and Jal’s state championship was close to being official.
Texico’s season was close to being over at 9-4.
“They definitely took advantage of some of our youth,” Wolverines head coach Bob Gilbreath said of Jal. “They’re a bigger, more physical team up front, and on both sides of the ball they just muscled us.”
Texico will try again next year, while Jal will be facing a state title defense for the first time since 2000. The Panthers will be trying to repeat minus 11 seniors – Lujan, Carreon, Sandoval, Rodriguez, Connor Andrae, Uly Cervantes, Fernando Rubio, Damian Baeza, Angel Franco, Trent Butts, and Brandon Gooss.
Giles will miss those players, but isn’t expecting 2023 to be a rebuilding year.
“The future looks really good,” Giles said. “We had an outstanding jayvee season this year, went undefeated, and we’ve got most of this offensive line coming back – I think four out of five. We’ve got some talented kids coming back. Yeah, we’re going to miss those (senior) guys, but I think the future’s bright.”
The outgoing seniors have left a legacy, set a standard for future teams, and it’s a source of pride for the 2022 champions. Especially Giles, who first coached the Panthers in the COVID-shortened Spring 2021 season and guided them to a state bowl victory, then led them to the Fall 2021 state championship game, which they lost to Eunice, and has now brought them to the 2A mountaintop.
“That was one of the things that I looked at when I applied for this job,” Giles said. “I’ve always liked to look at places where maybe it’s not quite going their way and just see what I can do, see if I could be helpful. And to come out here within three years and win this game, that makes me very proud.”
He’s not the only one.
“Oh man, it makes me feel amazing,” Lujan said. “Especially since my dad was on the last (championship) team. It just feels great to come out here my senior year, my last game, and win this.”
“It’s a really proud moment for us. It’s a really proud moment for our school,” Carreon said. “It’s been a very, very long time coming to win this championship for football. We left our legacy, we left our mark in Jal, New Mexico.”