Pigskin parade coming to a town near you
Losing key cogs won’t be setback for Warriors
Tradition never graduates.
It was one of Damien Ocampo’s zingers that lingers, that burrows and clings to the ear drum. Members of the Socorro football team perked up when they heard it, all of them propped on one knee listening intently to each coach as they addressed them inside the semi-circle.
Ocampo. Louie Laborin. Then it was Coach Lee’s turn.
“Put a smile on,” he said.
Yet what he had to say couldn’t have put a smile on the Joker. His words weren’t motivational but confrontational. The Warriors had just concluded a two-and-a-half hour scrimmage against Academy, but that didn’t stop Lee from presenting the players a challenge: Take off the shoulder pads, he said, and come do tires, a drill in which players strap and drag rubber that is more tractor-trailer than doughnut size across a dusty dirt lot caddy corner from the football field.
It’d be appropriate to expect, after a draining scrimmage, such an invitation would incite a stampede and coaches would have to saddle up and wrangle stragglers. Nope. Instead the Warriors herded over to the lot without prodding.
This is why tradition never graduates, Warriors center Robert Smith said.
“That bond is — if you can break it — I don’t think anything is going to break that bond now,” he said.
That bond has been built over the years. For the seniors, it started four years ago. Then they were given a refresher course about a week and a half ago, when the coaching staff packed up the seniors and drove them down to Water Canyon — a team-building session Ocampo started years ago.
It’s part of the process. And process was Laborin’s buzzword, as he repeated time and again. He said that’s how the Warriors groom players to fill in for the 15 departing seniors the Warriors lost to graduation.
Laborin calls it the “Warrior way.”
“It’s not so much, ‘We need to get back to a state championship every year,’” he said. “It’s more along the lines of, ‘Let’s do things right. Let’s do it the Warrior way, and everything else will take care of itself.’”
Seems like a nonchalant approach, considering that one of those seniors the Warriors lost was Zach Esquivel, the quarterback who accounted for about 1,500 passing yards, 1,000 on the ground and 20-plus combined passing and rushing touchdowns.
Remember, Laborin said? Tradition never graduates. And quarterbacks Ray Vaiza and Ibrahim Maiga will look to carry on that ritual behind center. In that regard, Vaiza was off to a good start. He scored three touchdowns during the Warriors’ scrimmage, his initial one coming off a 60-yard scamper the first play of the game.
If it wasn’t for “The Hogs” — the Warriors’ offensive line’s self-proclaimed nickname — Vaiza’s touchdowns wouldn’t have materialized.
But often that trench warfare doesn’t get its nod of acknowledgement in the battle toward winning the war. Credit starts and stops with the offensive general, guard Bryce Sandoval said.
“We know that we work hard and (the skilled players) get their names in the paper for scoring touchdowns,” said Sandoval, the Warriors 6-foot-1-inch, 233-pound guard.
Sandoval and Kris Gonzales will anchor the left side of the field and protect Vaiza’s blind spot, something that Gonzales said he takes pride in because he grew up with Vaiza.
“He’s my best friend,” the 6-foot-3-inch, 275-pound tackle said. “We’re a band of brothers.”
Literally and figuratively. Gonzales said he’s related to others on the team. And then there are the Robinson brothers — Zach and David — who Ocampo said didn’t play early but are starting to come on.
Which is what wounded brothers Justin Padilla and Aaron McDaniel are hoping to do soon.
Padilla sat out Wednesday’s scrimmage after aggravating his knee. Last year in the state quarterfinals against Academy, Padilla tore his ACL, an injury that added to the insult of a 63-21 skewering. He said he expects to play in the SHS’ Aug. 26 season-opener against West Las Vegas. Padilla played wing and linebacker last season, but the coaching staff plans to ease him in before asking him to double dip.
McDaniel, meanwhile, was sidelined with a strained shoulder. Once healthy, he’ll carry the backfield load. For his part, he can’t wait to get behind “The Hogs” and prance in the open prairies they clear. Behind a solid line, McDaniels witnessed firsthand what now-graduated running back James Thorton did, galloping for more than 1,000 yards.
That has McDaniels salivating.
“Last year, everyone underestimated us,” he said. “Everyone thinks we’re not going to be that good. It don’t matter. We just gotta prove ’em wrong. “
The proof is in their panache.
“You think we’re the worst team in 3A?” Sandoval said, talking about nobody in particular. “Come watch us. Come play us.”
And “us” is who opponents will play. Laborin made sure to stress that as the boys huddled up one last time before breaking for the day.
“We can’t put the dream on two guys’ shoulders,” he said.
Shoulders, it seems, is what the Warriors have in abundance, all of them eager and waiting to carry a fallen brother. Gonzales said that will help once the season gets underway.
“They don’t know what’s coming,” he said.
Know why? Because tradition never graduates.
Program needs community’s backing to steer it in right direction
If only till November, they are the unloved stepchildren.
Ask players on the Steers’ football team, many of who are basketball players, and they’ll talk about the town’s love affair with hoops — how here, the heart throbs for
the hardwood. Its relationship with football, on the other hand, can be described as she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not. Here, it would seem, football is nothing more than a stop-gap wedged between the two seasons.
“This is history repeating itself,” senior receiver John Woods said. “ … Last year all they cared about was basketball. It was, ‘Basketball this, basketball that.’”
But never football, senior Nathan Martin said.
“A lot of people expect us to fail,” said Martin, one of the few who doesn’t turn in his helmet and shoulder pads for a pair of shorts and sneakers. “They have their minds on basketball before football season even starts.”
“Guess they didn’t really have fun watching us lose,” quarterback Dylan Julian said.
Instead, the community has been more inclined to watch the Steers’ basketball teams win. And their success has been unmistakable. The boys went 26-5 in 2006 and ended up in the state tournament’s final four.
Magdalena Deputy Clerk Carleen Gomez couldn’t pinpoint an exact reason why few have supported the football program, other than to say that basketball is the town’s breadwinner.
“I really don’t know why. It’s not to say people aren’t into it,” she said. “But I think there’s more fans for the basketball program.”
For the Steers, it’s been a deadly tonic of turnover, fan apathy and a relative lack of cultural appreciation that has impacted their ability to sustain the game in Magdalena. Despite the circumstances, head football coach Jory Mirabal steadfastly refuses to acknowledge some of the difficulties the program faces.
“My personality is deal me my cards and let me play my hand,” he said.
But it’d be ignorant not to think those factors have resulted in fatalism when it comes to football. With that said, it should be of little surprise that Magdalena’s program has been a lot like Lazarus. Dead one moment. Revived the next.
Trace back the history of Magdalena football and its on-again-off-again nature comes into focus. The Steers had a 10-year gap where they didn’t play. Once six feet under, six-man football was resuscitated in 2002, with David Marquez and Marvin Martin playing key roles. Both are no longer at the school.
More recently, the Steers’ program expanded from eight- to 11-man football last season, but they didn’t have a coach in place till late, and players said their first day of practice was essentially the second day of school.
A last-minute hire, Manny Marquez coached the Steers to a defeated season last year. He said he has his own theory about why Magdalena’s football roots haven’t quite taken to the area’s soil. It has to do with Sam Olney, the Steers’ former athletics director.
“The AD was all basketball, so he wasn’t going to be pushing for football,” he said. “I think they would have rather not had football last year at all. And then when I stepped in there, I think they said, ‘If we don’t give it to him, then people are going to really start saying something.’”
When asked about Marquez’s comment, Mirabal was momentarily taken aback, but then he shot back.
“Sam had to babysit him every step of the way. That’s a pretty cheap shot,” he said, adding that coaching takes more than passively observing.
That sentiment was shared by the Steers’ players. More than one player said it was obvious that Marquez was in over his head.
“He didn’t really know what he was talking about, but we thank him for coming out and helping us have a season,” Julian said.
With Mirabal in place, however, coaching incompetence doesn’t figure to be an issue this time around. If anything, it’s community indifference.
Yes, the team’s numbers are up — drastically, for that matter. But if it continues to have a breathless fan base, the Steers seem condemned to waste away on life support until the school board decides to finally pull the plug, Woods said.
“The fact of the matter is that it was bad because nobody had faith in it,” he said.
Stopping that defeatist attitude is the task at hand. Mirabal and his players said that coaxing the community into backing a program is straightforward: win. That’s the great elixir, not that anyone has to tell that to Athletics Director Billy Page.
“Early in the year, everyone is going to be gung-ho (about football), but as the year goes on, it (fizzles),” he said. “The community has to feel it has ownership in the program. They’ll take pride in what they feel is theirs.”
To generate that sense of pride, Woods said, the team is slinging spirit in the form of sweatshirts and caps. The proceeds fund athletics’ general pot with a sliver of that going toward the football team. Luckily, Mirabal said, Socorro High School has supported the Steers’ quest to establish their football program. The school donated pads, so that Magdalena didn’t have to purchase as much gear.
With the part down pat, Martin said the Steers are headed toward legitimacy now that they have weeded out lukewarm players. Last year, he said, “A lot of people would come out here, take a big hit and then turn in their gear the next day.”
Fast forward to the present, and Magdalena is looking to take the next step so that it can one day reflect on the past.
“In 15-20 years,” Mirabal said, “I want some of these guys to look back and say, ‘Hey, I played on that football team. My kid will, too.’”
And although it might be hard for some of the Steers’ players to realize it now, their second season playing 11-man football could very well be one of those cherished mementos that goes in a time capsule, and years later, reminds players of the day the fledgling program finally started to grow its wings.
“I will always remember the days out here,” Martin said.