‘Gutsy’ Robertson returns to fourth straight title game in 25-17 defeat of Hope Christian
ALBUQUERQUE — Playing hurt is never a dilemma on the Las Vegas Robertson sideline.
You just play.
Antonio Padilla’s right ankle was throbbing for most of Friday night’s Class 3A semifinal game against top-seeded Hope Christian at Milne Stadium, but the junior running back was on the field when it mattered the most. In the third quarter, senior quarterback Brandon Lucero was hit and knocked down by a Huskies lineman and held his right leg up in the air, but then picked himself off the field and limped back to the huddle moments later.
Santiago Gonzales grimaced in pain later in the fourth quarter after his left leg was caught in a dog pile of Cardinals and Huskies, but the senior running back’s teammates grabbed him by the shoulder pads and helped him up.
It was the Cardinal Way in full force, and it helped fifth-seeded Robertson (11-2) squeeze out a 25-17 win to advance to its fourth straight state championship game next week.
“Everybody’s hurt this time of the season,” Cardinals head coach Leroy Gonzalez said. “Heck, I’m hurt. But it’s just, how much do you want it? How much do you want to win this game? We got some gutsy kids.”
And gutsy coaches. Robertson played against type for the first half, as the running team suddenly took to the air, and a defense that played man-to-man coverage threw a zone at Hope Christian.
Lucero completed six of 10 passes in the opening half for 144 yards and two touchdowns that gave the Cardinals a 15-10 halftime lead. The defense confounded Huskies quarterback Nick Henry to complete just three of his first 11 passes for only 16 yards. He finished the game 10-of-31 for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Henry looked lost when Robertson returned to its man-to-man defense in the second half.
“They didn’t know what was coming,” Padilla said. “We had to hope for the best when we changed it.”
Lucero said it was Robertson’s signature on defense — that of a hard-hitting unit which flies to the ball — that had just as much of an impact on the game.
“They hadn’t been hit by a physical team like us all year long,” Lucero said. “I think that was the game changer. Every team gets hit in the mouth, and I think that’s what happened.”
Outside of a season-opening 10-3 win over Portales (which is in the 5A semifinals against Taos on Saturday) and a 36-21 win over Bloomfield on Sept. 22, Hope Christian (11-1) had dominated opponents by an aggregate 442-40 score on its way to a perfect mark until it faced the Cardinals.
The first haymaker Robertson landed came on the opening drive as Lucero hit Padilla for a 55-yard touchdown pass. Padilla got behind the Huskies secondary and outraced defenders to the end zone with 8:32 left in the first quarter.
“Coming into this game, we wanted to jump on them right away,” Lucero said. “We said, ‘You know what? Let’s open it up and take a shot down the field right away.’ ”
The Cardinals continued their riverboat gambler style on the next drive when Lucero hit right end Julius Vaughn up the middle with a 23-yard touchdown pass on a fourth down-and-2 play with 1:28 left in the opening quarter. Lucero’s arm was needed because the Huskies held Robertson to just 50 rushing yards in the opening half.
“The running game opened up the tight end,” Gonzalez said. “You see it everywhere. A good tight end, man, that’s a specialty.”
Hope Christian used its big-play ability to stay alive. Henry hit Ryan Cosper with an 80-yard pass that Padilla stopped at the Robertson 1-yard line when he chased him down from the opposite side of the field. That set up a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Blane Miller to trim the lead to 15-10 with 2:07 left in the first half.
Robertson took a 22-10 lead on its opening drive of the second half when Lucero connected with Vaughn for a 44-yard touchdown pass with 7:29 left. The Huskies tried to answer right back when Henry went deep to find Vince Quezada for a 67-yard touchdown strike, but the play was wiped out because of a holding penalty.
It seemed that the Cardinals could do no wrong until the opening moments of the final quarter. Lucero’s pass to Vaughn was intercepted by Hope Christian safety Lucas Martinez and returned to the Robertson 21. On the next play, Henry hit Cosper for a 21-yard touchdown that trimmed the margin to 22-17 with 11:47 left.
But that’s when the Cardinal’s running game finally got going. The ensuing drive ate 8:08 off the clock and ended when Padilla was stopped on fourth-and-1 at the Huskies 14. Henry only managed a 2-yard completion before turning the ball over on downs.
Then, Jerry Chavez provided some insurance with a 35-yard field for a 25-17 lead with 31 seconds left. The finishing touches on an upset were provided by sophomore Justin Padilla, who recovered Eli Martin’s fumble on the kickoff to seal the win.
Robertson now must try to exorcise the demons of the past three years, in which it reached the final game of the season only to come up short each time. Last year saw Ruidoso beat the Cardinals on the final play, 57-54, in the championship.
The Cardinals get another shot at finally hoisting the trophy they really want — the one with the blue hue. “We’ve done this year after year and it seems natural, but it isn’t,” Gonzalez said. “It’s special getting to the semis. It’s special getting to the playoffs. I try to make this feel like it’s a special opportunity.”
It’s why playing hurt was an easy decision to make.