Questa’s game plan: Stability, new recruits
QUESTA — If ever a program was at a crossroads, the Questa Wildcats fit that model.
The 2017 season was supposed to be a celebration of 50 years of playing 11-man football at the school. Instead, it turned into a nightmare of a fall, as administrators decided to forfeit the final three games of the season because of the school’s small roster.
The Wildcats were down to 12 players by the time they faced the prospect of playing eventual Class 2A champion Fort Sumner/House on Oct. 13. Even the players admitted the risk of further injuries — especially to the underclassmen — trumped any sense of pride in trying to finish the season.
“We had too many small guys,” Questa senior Derek Vialpando said. “We didn’t want to hurt them.”
Ten months later, though, the same problem plagues the struggling program. Only six players showed up for practice Wednesday evening, so first-year head coach Daniel Gallegos opted to teach the kids how to run certain routes in his system — in-routes, out-routes, slants, fly patterns. Then he went about instructing them how to run the option from the “pistol” offense the Wildcats intend to use.
Some of the players were pitching the ball to their running back partner for the first time and it showed, as the ball ended up behind the runner — or sometimes out of the back of the end zone.
At the end of practice, Gallegos thanked the boys for their participation and encouraged them to talk to their friends about coming out for the next day’s 6 a.m. practice.
Monday — the first day of school — can’t get here soon enough for Gallegos, a 1999 Questa graduate who had two stints with the program as an assistant coach, so that he can roam the hallways to convince students to play.
Playing into Gallegos’ advantage is that Questa only has six games this year and will not play until Sept. 8 at home against Raton.
“It gives us some leeway of opportunity to where, when school starts, we will have that week of recruitment,” Gallegos said. “They’ll be able to have their 10 practices [before being eligible to play] and still have a couple of weeks of training before we see game-time situations.”
The football program’s plight mimics the uncertainty that surrounds the Questa Independent School District. It went through four superintendents during the 2017-18 school year, the football program couldn’t make it through the season, the boys basketball coach was fired two weeks before the start of last season, and the district toyed with the idea of shuttering its spring sports because of a lack of funds.
“Everything was iffy — it’s all up in the air,” Vialpando said. “And to me, it still feels like it is. Everything is floating around right now, and it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen.”
That’s because the district announced wholesale changes to the athletic department just two weeks ago, with only two head coaches retaining their posts — boys soccer’s Bill McDonald and Kathy Gonzales of the school’s state championship cheerleading squad.
If there ever was a glimmer of hope, Gallegos pointed to the cheerleading program as a beacon. He said about 20 students were participating in the program — almost three times as many as for football. Gallegos added that success often breeds interest and often leads to more success.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Gallegos said of the football program. “The morale is low, but it gives me a chance to come in and help say, ‘Hey, let’s change this ship. Let’s make this turn and go down a different path.’ ”
The problem for a football program that is now on its fourth coach in as many years is to figure out how to find that path.
“It’s hard having a new coach every year,” Wildcats senior Daniel Mandonado said. “You’re always having to learn something new, and having to go off of somebody else’s knowledge, you’re going back. You’re not taking one step forward; you’re always going back.”
Questa was supposed to compete in eight-man football this year, since its three-year enrollment average (121 students) allowed it to play at that division. Mandonado said he was excited at that prospect, but the problem was two-fold: Questa had always played 11-man football, and its nearest opponent was a three-hour bus ride away.
So the school opted to stay in 11-man and play the likes of Escalante, McCurdy, Dulce and Newcomb. Vialpando and Mandonado know what that likely will mean for them and their teammates.
“Iron-man football,” Mandonado said.
“Pretty much — playing the whole four quarters,” Vialpando said. “That’s where the conditioning is important. Other teams have these players they can substitute. We have to go hard for four full quarters.”
Gallegos hopes he can minimize the amount of players playing both sides of the ball while also molding the Wildcats into a solid team. Gallegos admitted that evaluating players sans helmet and pads like he has for the first few practices is one thing. It’s totally different once they have to hit and be hit.
“Until you get the pads on and see what their mentality is with the pads, you can’t really assess their ability,” Gallegos said. “They can have great ability, but that changes when you put on pads. Your focus and the vision is skewed. Some people become invincible with pads, and some people shy away.”
Gallegos hopes the Wildcats don’t shy away from this challenge, because it could have far-reaching effects for football at Questa.