Estancia High’s head football coach Stewart Burnett and his assistants gathered their players at midfield last Saturday for the toughest postgame talk of the season.

The disappointed players knelt and listened, as the weighty reality of the moment still beamed from the red LED lights on the scoreboard at the south end of the field:

HOME      GUEST

6                    37

“As far as heart goes, I have no issues. You played hard, you played fearless, I’m proud of all of you,” Burnett told his team, adding, “To all you seniors—thank you. To the returning players, next season starts Monday morning.”

It was a firm reminder to the team’s underclassmen not to dwell on the sting of their season-ending defeat, but to use it as motivation to get to the next level: The level the fourth-seeded Bears formerly owned during their back-to-back state championships of 2014-15.

Last Saturday’s loss was Estancia’s third straight to No. 1 Eunice (12-0), and the second-consecutive year the Bears (7-5) fell to the Cardinals in the Class 3A state semifinals. But unlike last year, this year’s roadblock was somewhat self-created.

During the first half, the Cardinals put 21 unanswered points on the board while the Bears shot themselves in the foot.

Eunice fumbled the opening kickoff and Estancia’s Moises Anaya recovered the ball at the Cardinals 41-yard line. But the Bears’ drive stalled in Eunice territory.

Early in the second quarter, the Bears fought their way to the Cardinals 31-yard line before fumbling the ball away.

Josh Thomas’ long return of a kickoff after a Cardinals’ touchdown was nullified by an illegal block penalty—forcing the Bears to start another possession inside their own 10.

Estancia then drove 60 yards—mostly on the legs of sophomore running back Andrew Lujan who led the Bears in rushing with 151 yards on 19 carries.

But on fourth down, a completed pass from Cruz Moreno to Drayton Oberg inside the Eunice 5-yard line was nullified by a holding penalty, and the drive fizzled.

Estancia’s final drive of the second quarter got inside the Cardinals 20, but derailed when a Eunice defender out-jumped Brian Walker and Joel Silva to pick off Moreno’s pass in the end zone. Silva injured his leg on the play and did not return to game.

“The first half was a microcosm of what we’ve struggled with this season—when we didn’t kill ourselves with penalties, we killed ourselves with turnovers,” Burnett said.

Eunice’s Avante Stevens leaping for an interception between Brian Walker, left, and Joel Silva, who got hurt on the play and didn’t return to the game.

On their opening drive of the third quarter, the Bears marched into Eunice territory before turning the ball over on another interception. In the fourth quarter, a bad snap rolled into the end zone resulting in a Bears’ safety and 2 more points for the Cardinals.

Eunice upped its lead to 30-0 before Estancia finally got into the end zone.

With just over six minutes remaining in the game, Thomas caught a short pass from Moreno and dashed 70 yards for a touchdown. “It felt good just to put some points on the board,” Thomas said. “It was very important to me and my teammates.”

Thomas finished with 216 total yards, including 46 yards rushing on 10 carries.

Estancia tried to keep possession with an onside kick, but the Cardinals recovered the ball and scored their final TD with 2:03 left.

“They’ve got speed and size like I have never seen on a 3A school, but I think our kids went toe-to-toe with them,” Burnett said. “We moved the ball, we just didn’t finish drives and we undid ourselves with our own mistakes.”

But as Burnett told his team, the quest for a red and white postseason in 2018 is already underway.

Eighteen returning players pulled themselves out of bed and showed up at Estancia’s weight room last Monday at 6:45 a.m. to begin their journey.