WR Grant Giesler celebrates the game winning catch he made against Cleveland. Photo: Una Woisin

History has been made, and the state championship game hasn’t even been played yet. For the first time in New Mexico high school football history, the two teams that will be competing for the Class 6A State Championship on Saturday will be schools from the city of Albuquerque.

And these two teams brought fireworks in their last match-up, the #1 seed Manzano Monarchs and the #2 seed La Cueva Bears.

Manzano and La Cueva met earlier in the regular season, which ended in a 28-21 win for the Monarchs, handing the Bears their first and, so far, only loss of the entire season. In that game, the Monarchs jumped out in front of the Bears 21-0 by the end of the first half, and it looked like it wasn’t even going to be a close contest. Manzano dominated on all cylinders.

Both teams would trade touchdowns in the third quarter to make it 28-7 in favor of Manzano. The Bears would make a last effort in the 4th quarter, scoring 14 unanswered points, even attempting a couple of times to tie it up in the fourth, but La Cueva fell just short.

Now, it’s a whole new day. But this time the stakes are higher for both teams. A blue trophy and the bragging rights of “state champions” are on the line in one of the most competitive years of New Mexico High School Football.

For La Cueva, it’s going to be all about their defense shutting down the running game by the Monarchs. The dual threat of QB Jordan Byrd and RB Xavier Ivey-Saud was the key for Manzano in defeating La Cueva in the regular season. In their regular season game, Byrd had 13 carries for 111 yards for two touchdowns and Ivey-Saud had 30 carries for 140 yards for two touchdowns.

Manzano’s offense did an excellent job of finding gaps in La Cueva’s defense, rushing for a total of 238 yards. The passing and receiving statistics were mainly non-existent though for the Monarchs, Byrd throwing just 2-5 for two yards and Jack Blankenship with the lone reception. If the Bears can once again put the pressure on Manzano’s passing game, while at the same time forming a new plan to contain the Monarchs’ running game, they will be in good hands.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Bears will once again be without starting QB Dylan Summer, so they will rely on a rotation between WR Reece Wilkinson using the Wildcat formation and sophomore backup QB Austin Smith. In La Cueva’s semifinal game, Wilkinson went 2-5 for 99 yards passing, and Smith going 5-10 for 18 yards and the one lone passing touchdown of the game, the game-winning one to WR Grant Giesler in overtime.

As for Manzano, their keys will be to have their defense perform strongly, just like they did in the first half of the regular season game, shutting the Bears offense down to zero points. Senior LB Cameron Herrera for the Monarchs had 11 tackles in the regular season game, and the Monarchs overall had three sacks the entire game. And once again, the running attack on offense will be key for the Monarchs if they want to finish off their season strong. But if the Bears are better prepared for it this go-around, and if they attack the air, they have a good receiving core with Andrew Erickson, Jack Blankenship, and Dakota Powell.

For the Bears, their path to the state championship has been one full of back and forth games that took a last minute score to win it. In their quarterfinal game against the Eldorado Eagles, the Bears were down 28-7 at the end of the first half before making a miraculous comeback in the third quarter, tying it at 28-28. Then the Bears pulled away in the fourth, making the final score 38-35. Then in their semifinal match with the Cleveland Storm, it would be a back-and-forth defensive affair that saw a 14-10 score at halftime before both offensive sides would let loose, forcing overtime. La Cueva finished it on the game-winning catch by Giesler to make it 37-34.

As for the Monarchs, they continued their dominant fashion wins in their path to the championship, defeating the Clovis Wildcats in the quarterfinals by a score of 49-7, and a decisive win against the Las Cruces Bulldawgs by a score of 28-10 in the semifinals.

If Manzano were to win the state championship, it would be their first-ever state championship as a football program. As for the Bears, it would be their first state title since 2009, and 5th overall state championship.

The NMAA and APS are expecting a full house for Saturday’s contest at Wilson Stadium. Follow the online link posted below to get tickets if you plan on attending. The La Cueva Senate has been promoting the “Whiteout” theme. All fans attending the game, please wear white shirts.

The following is the link to buy tickets: