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Lopers looming large

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By Dave Kavanaugh

Tough competition on the gridiron awaits all three local teams.

New Mexico Highlands plays the current No. 1 team in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference — Nebraska-Kearney — on Saturday, looking for what would be a monumental upset.

The visiting Lopers are 5-1 overall and 4-0 in the RMAC, tied with Colorado School of Mines for the top spot. And they are the 21st ranked team in NCAA Division II.

NMHU is 0-6 and 0-4 in league play after falling 51-7 at defending RMAC champ Chadron State.

Kickoff is 1 p.m. at Perkins Stadium.

UNK quarterback Jake Spitzlberger is coming off a career day after throwing four touchdown passes and going six of 15 for  293 yards in the Lopers’ win over Colorado State-Pueblo last week in Kearney.

Safety Jake Mandelko had 12 tackles and an interception in the game, and kicker-punter Jordan Alegria earned RMAC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time in a three-week span. Alegria drilled three field goals and four extra points and had two of his punts downed inside the CSUP 20.

The Lopers are averaging 33 points a game and holding foes to 15.5, rolling up 448.5 yards of offense, evenly balanced between the rush and the pass. Opponents are gaining an average of 310.7 yards a game.

Rustin Dring is UNK’s top rusher, averaging 96.8 yards a contest with three TDs to his credit. Spitzlberger is also an option threat.

Kyle Kaiser and Tyrone Hilton are Spitzlberger’s favored targets when he decides to throw.

Mandelko, with 39 tackles and four picks, is the Lopers’ premier defensive playmaker.

For NMHU, QB Narciso Diaz returned to the lineup last week with mixed results. He went six of 17 for 50 yards with one TD and no interceptions.

Travis Lee has had a solid season individually. With 20 catches for 212 yards and a touchdown, he’s the Cowboys’ most prolific receiver. Lee is also dependable as a kick returner, with 19 to date at an average of 16.7 yards.

Chris Burns’ 45 tackles are a team best. T.J. Norris has 43, and Julian Dupri has 24 solo stops — a team high — among his 33 tackles. Thomas Raiola has 32 tackles, a team-high eight for loss. Carl Willis has two of Highlands’ three interceptions.

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Two old rivals meet up Friday night in Raton, as the Robertson Cardinals (3-2) visit the Tigers in the District 2-3A opener for both squads.

Raton lost an early lead against the new Rio Rancho school, the Cleveland Storm, and lost a 24-22 nailbiter last week. That was the first blemish to what is now a 5-1 overall record for coach Brock Walton’s bunch.

With returning standouts like Janti Abaza (defensive back, receiver) and Dustin Walton (a 6-4 QB) leading the way, Raton is living up to its No. 1 ranking by the New Mexico High School Coaches Association. The Tigers own wins against Trinidad (Colo.), Taos, Socorro, Portales and Questa.

Against common opponents Portales and Taos, Raton is 2-0; Robertson 1-1.

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West Las Vegas (2-4) also begins district play against a 5-1 opponent, the Pojoaque Elks.

Pojoaque saw its five-game win streak cut short in a 47-26 loss at Grants last week. The Elks had beaten Santa Fe Indian, Wingate, Española, Taos and McCurdy.

Against common foes SFIS and Taos, Pojo is 2-0, WLV 1-1.