It comes down to one game. One game to hoist a championship trophy. Socorro is now one step away.
On a cold Saturday afternoon the Warriors hit the football field and got revenge by beating the only team it had lost to in 2019. It was not easy but the Warriors never trailed during a 21-14 victory over the Tularosa Wildcats, vaulting them into the 3-A State Championship game.
Junior Nathaniel Fresquez, who was injured on two occasions during the November 23 afternoon proceedings, summed up the feelings of the team.
“This is something that you wait your whole life for. It is a high school dream. After getting hurt I wasn’t on the field so I did a lot of praying. Rooting for the guys. Our team worked hard in practice and overcame as a group. Injury wise I took a helmet to the knee. But I feel fine, that is what winning does. Even if I’m out there on crutches next week I’m playing no matter what.”
A general assembly line for students and family gathered to welcome the Warriors out of the gate with multiple custom signs showcased. Tularosa won the coin toss and chose to defer, putting Socorro’s offense on the field first.
The opening drive was less than promising for the Warriors. A penalty and two botched snaps lead to a quick punt. Things quickly turned around when senior tackle Iziah Montoya recovered a fumble as the Wildcats were driving.
“I saw one of my guys strip the ball out and I jumped right on it,” Montoya said. “The play helped us definitely but regardless of that play we still had a good shot at winning. This was a rough game tonight for both sides but that’s how a ballgame is.”
The first big play of the game came from a 35 yard pass to Fresquez that set up a short run by junior Michael McDaniel for an easy score. Socorro lead 7-0 after one.
What seemed to be a lost possession for Tularosa on its first drive of the second ended up being extended with multiple penalties on the defense. The Warriors held on to force a turnover on downs, but multiple players were telling the coaching staff how tired they were on the sidelines.
Once the offense hit the field another big catch by Fresquez put them inside the 10 with quarterback Payson Hicks plugging it in on an option play. Tularosa quarterback Traiton Griffin had a big keeper run for 40 yards on its next possession but it was negated by a block in the back penalty. From there flags started to fly, beginning with an unnecessary roughness call on Warriors senior Ian Jordison off of a sack that kept the Wildcats moving. Tularosa failed to capitalize before going into the half. Socorro Head Coach Damien Ocampo had a discussion on the field with the referees not calling chop block penalties during halftime.
The Tularosa offense started off the second half and were stalled thanks to a big pass deflection by Socorro sophomore Jordan Armijo. A poor drive by the Warriors was saved after an interception by sophomore Adadrian Jackson on the defensive side. Three straight personal foul calls resulted in the only scoreless quarter of the game.
Griffin finally found the end zone for the Wildcats early in the fourth to make it a one possession game. After a failed onside kick attempt by Tularosa, junior Michael McDaniel made a game changing play for Socorro, breaking multiple tackles off of a short pass to the left as he took it to the house, making it 21-6.
“When I caught the ball I just felt the guy behind me without even seeing him,” he said. “So I ducked and was able to break the tackle to get into the end zone. I knew that I was going all the way there.”
The Wildcats would not go home quietly with another late score by Griffin and two point conversion to make it 21-14 with 2:30 left. Socorro sealed the deal on the ground with a 3rd and inches first down by Hicks to run out the clock.
“I can’t really explain how great this feeling is,” Hicks said. “Tularosa was tough. I haven’t had pressure like that in my face in a long time and it was good to experience that again. They played a great game. Keeping our heads as a team was big compared to what we did last week which is what we’ll need to do next.”
When the final whistle blew the stadium full of Socorro fans joined in during the Warriors fight song. Athletic Director Alex Johnson, who has coached at multiple schools, was elated for his first opportunity to be involved with a championship run.
“If you could see the smile on my face right now that says it all,” he said. “But we’re not done yet. It would be amazing to be part of a championship team. We have such a great group of guys and sometimes the good guys win. There’s still plenty to clean up, we don’t want to change much, but these boys have made myself and this coaching staff proud beyond words. Our message to the players is to not waste a second because before you know it that moment is gone.”
Coach Ocampo brought the team together on the field as per tradition for a pep talk and prayer. In three years he has brought the team from 4-7 to being on the cusp of a state championship.
“This feels great to see our body of work come together,” he said. “We’re definitely back on the map as a program. Our guys are, for lack of a better word, just good. The players did all of the little things we needed to do. They’re so physical. However, we really need to hunker down because Hope Christian is loaded every single year and they’re going to be tough in the championship. That’s my focus already is looking at film for the next week.”
The NMAA 3-A State Championship game will be a battle of 1 vs 2 with the Hope Christian Huskies traveling to Socorro on November 30 for another 1 p.m. afternoon game to decide who brings home the trophy.