Las Vegas Robertson tired of being runners-up in title games
LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Enough, already.
Enough with the heartbreak, the near-misses, the unshakable memories of walking off the field watching the other team hoist the championship trophy.
Such is life at Las Vegas Robertson, one of the state’s most successful football programs but a hard luck loser in the last three Class 4A championship games. It’s a proud program with lofty expectations, but as anyone in Cardinals gear will tell you — the close-but-not-close-enough thing is getting old.
“I think about it every day,” said Antonio Padilla, a senior who had 160 all-purpose yards in December’s championship game against Ruidoso before a hip injury forced him to sit out for all but one play of the second half.
“I probably watch the tape almost every day,” he said. “I think about what we could have done to make it different, maybe get the win. I don’t know, but I can’t stop watching.”
The Cardinals have won 43 games the last four years, more than any team in its classification. Every year it seems they’re headed for a rebuilding project after the loss of a talented senior class, yet every year they’re back in the mix doing what they do best.
“I think we’ll be OK,” Cardinals head coach Leroy Gonzalez said. “This might be one of those years where we start a little slow but get better by the end.”
Fact is, Robertson must replace one of the top players in school history. Gone is do-everything quarterback and safety Arjay Ortiz. In his place steps senior Brandon Lucero, an all-state pitcher on the baseball team and a player who’s more than ready to start taking snaps in Ortiz’s place.
“Big shoes to fill, but I’ve been waiting for this for three years,” Lucero said. “I’m just glad to get a chance. Three years of practice is a long time.”
A master at improvisation, Ortiz gives way to a more by-the-book approach from Lucero.
“At least now we’ll know where the ball’s going,” Gonzalez said. “Brandon’s not the type of player who will do the things Arjay did, so what you’ll probably see is us going back to the Robertson style we ran for years. Just take the ball right at you and grind away.”
In other words, plenty of playing time for running backs Padilla and Santiago Gonzales. Both were starters a year ago and each brings the quick and bruising style that Robertson’s tradition was built upon.
In front of them will be a line that’s adding a few new faces, but one that won’t see a significant change from a year ago. At heart, Gonzalez said, it’s essentially the same team as what was out there the last few years — minus the playmaking ability of Ortiz, of course.
The defense will again use the attacking front that lacks size but has that Robertson ingredient of players willing to run through brick walls to make a play. It’s a mentality that has come to define this program the last
20 years, one started by former coach Art Abreu Sr., carried through by former coach Chad Roanhaus and made even stronger by Gonzalez during his nine years at the helm.
Off the record, Gonzalez isn’t worried about what lies ahead. He knows a loss or two is in the works. He knows injuries may force change, just as it did late last year when one player going down caused a cascade affect that saw Lucero move from the secondary to linebacker.
“At the time those changes seemed like they were going to be hard on us, but they got some guys off the sidelines and into the game, and that’s the thing that makes you better,” Gonzalez said. “Some of those guys got valuable experience and some of them are back with us this year. Sometimes changes can be a good thing.”
Long story short, go ahead and let the pain from the last three years linger. Go ahead and let the memories keep getting refreshed.
The Cardinals are one of the few teams that can handle it.
Sales pitch: Junior Dante Jenkins was recruited to football when Gonzalez approached him in the weight room and offered a simple suggestion.
“He’s a basketball player, I mean look at him — he’s 6-foot-3,” the coach said. “I told him there was a way to make sure he never gets pushed around in the paint again. Football. That’s all it took.”
A rising star in the Cards’ boys hoops program, Jenkins will start at tight end and line up as an edge pass rusher on the defensive line. He’s raw, but his athletic skills and sheer determination make him a player to watch.
New look, literally: Gonzalez has dropped 62 pounds in the last year as he prepares for a kidney and pancreas transplant. The 47-year-old is at the top of the region’s medical emergency list for both organs and he said he and his wife are under orders to be in Albuquerque within four hours of a phone call telling him a donor has been found. He said he has had a recurring nightmare that the call will come in the middle of the state championship game in December.
“But they told me they have Learjets to fly me from anywhere we go,” he jokes. “Maybe if it’s in the second half and the call comes, I can finish the game.”
The team’s longest road trip this fall is to Bayard for a game against Cobre, an 800-mile, 12-hour round trip from Las Vegas.
Las Vegas Robertson Cardinals
Last year: 11-2 overall, 5-1 in District 2-4A (lost to Ruidoso in the Class 4A state championship game)
Head coach: Leroy Gonzalez (ninth season)
Key players: Antonio Padilla, junior, 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, RB/CB; Brandon Lucero, senior, 5-6, 145, QB/DB; Emiliano Berged, senior, 6-0, 165, WR/FS; Santiago Gonzales, senior, 5-10, 165, RB/LB; Michael Yara, junior, 5-6, 130, WR/CB; Andres Grano, soph., 5-6, 130, RB/CB; Mackenzie Ebell junior, 5-10, 170, RB/LB; Jacob Gamel, senior, 6-1, 168, TE/LB; Dante Jenkins, junior, 6-3, 170, TE/DE.
Outlook: The Cardinals say goodbye to Class 4A after making three straight trips to the state championship game and winning 43 games over the last four years, most of any team in that class. A revamped 3A alignment awaits, but the expectations are as high as ever. Despite losing All-State quarterback Arjay Ortiz, the Cards still have plenty of punch in the offense. With senior Brandon Lucero taking over at QB and running backs Antonio Padilla and Santiago Gonzales in the backfield, the Redbirds will get back to old-school Robertson football — more running, less improvisation. Defensively, don’t anticipate a huge drop-off as Padilla anchors a solid group that returns six starters.
Aug. 24 — Santa Fe High, 7 p.m.
Aug. 31 — at Cobre, 6 p.m.
Sept. 7 — at Santa Rosa, 7 p.m.
Sept. 14 — Ruidoso, 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 — Socorro, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 — at Tucumcari, 7 p.m.
Oct. 5 — Santa Fe Indian-x, 7 p.m.
Oct. 12 — Raton-x, 7 p.m.
Oct. 27 — at St. Michael’s-x,
Nov. 2 — at West Las Vegas-x,
x-denotes District 2-3A opponent