After two hours of clashing like cars in a demolition derby, Estancia High School’s football team circled around the 50-yard line to celebrate last Friday’s 26-14 victory over the visiting Raton Tigers.
With sweat-soaked hair clinging to their foreheads, the players raised their helmets and roared: “Final Four on three—one, two, three, FINAL FOUR!”
By dispatching the fifth-seeded Tigers in the Class 3A state quarterfinals, the No. 4 Bears once again punched their ticket to the semis.
According to head coach Stewart Burnett, it ties a school record for the longest streak of semifinal appearances.
“We’re going to enjoy every second of this, and come back for our fourth-consecutive Thanksgiving practice,” Burnett said.
Prior to the game, each player jumped to touch the scoreboard that bears legendary Estancia coach Bob Bell’s name, followed by a moment of silence in his honor. Bell recently passed away.
Once the game got underway, a pounding, bruising battle started slowly and became unseemly before it was over.
Both teams struggled early, exchanging punts and fumbles before the Bears got on the board with a touchdown pass from Cruz Moreno to Josh Thomas.
Facing third-and-6 from the Raton 36-yard line, Moreno took the snap out of the shotgun, faked a handoff, and tossed the ball into the wind.
Thomas, who was standing all alone at the 10, caught the ball while back-peddling and trotted into the end zone.
“They all came in like they thought we were running and he was wide open,” Moreno said.
“We just dumped it right on top of them,” Thomas added. “That gave us a lot of momentum.”
Moreno capped Estancia’s next drive with a 23-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
The Tigers fumbled the ball on their next possession and Brian Walker scooped it up and ran into the end zone, but an illegal block nullified the would-be TD and the Bears took over on the Raton 27-yard line.
Two plays later Thomas bolted 17 yards into the end zone to extend Estancia’s lead to 20-0. He led the Bears in rushing with 110 yards on 22 carries.
Early in the fourth quarter, Raton got on the board with a quarterback-keeper to trim the score to 20-7.
On Estancia’s next drive, Thomas broke through a hole and raced 67 yards for what appeared to be a touchdown.
But as the Bears were attempting the point-after kick, the officials blew their whistles, stopped the play, and signaled that the touchdown was nullified.
“They said there was another illegal block on the [touchdown] play, but I don’t know,” Burnett said.
Later in the fourth, the Bears scored their final TD on Thomas’ 1-yard plunge.
The Tigers answered with a 75-yard touchdown pass, making the score 26-14 with 2:42 remaining in the game.
Raton attempted an onside-kick but the Bears recovered and took over at their own 42.
With just over two minutes remaining, tempers flared resulting in a flurry of penalty flags. At one point, flags were thrown on five-consecutive plays—three involved personal fouls.
With 1:02 left, three personal fouls were called during one play: two against the Tigers and one against the Bears.
“In those last few minutes, everything about who they are oozed out, and we got sucked into it and played down to their level—everything about it was sloppy,” Burnette said, adding, “But I’d rather win ugly than lose pretty.”
Estancia will host the top-ranked Eunice Cardinals in the 3A semifinal on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Ger has been writing and shooting photos of high school sports for The Independent for 15 years. His dedication to youth athletics goes beyond sports reporting. He is past president of East Mountain Little League and works as a baseball umpire. He lives in Edgewood with his family.