One of the most competitive and start-to-finish entertaining Vegas Bowls in years played out on a chilly Saturday at the Herrera Complex.
With a 42-26 victory, the Robertson Cardinals and head coach Leroy Gonzalez wrapped up a District 2-3A championship season and solidified a seeding in the upcoming state playoffs. On the other side, West Las Vegas finished a tough season on an up note with arguably its best offensive effort under first-year head coach Robert Alarcon.
Robertson finished stronger, scoring two unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull away with the win. James Gonzales, battling apparent muscle cramps, lunged across the end zone for an 8-yard score at the 8:35 mark for the first of those. With 3:12 left, Nathan L’Esperance slashed up the middle from the WLV 11 for the game’s final points.
But Robertson needed that big finish after West closed to within four points, 30-26, on a goal-line touchdown plunge by Jose Juan Montaño with 28 seconds left in the third quarter. The Dons had rallied from deficits of 16-0 and 24-6 to make it a game.
After the RHS defense held the Dons to a three-and-out on their first series of the afternoon, West botched the snap on a punt attempt, and Robertson took over deep in Dons territory. Gonzales scored on the next play, dashing in for a 6-yard touchdown. Dominic Lucero’s 2-point conversion run made it 8-0.
After the opposing defenses pitched three scoreless series, L’Esperance passed to Norman Salazar for a 10-yard TD, and Lucero punched in for the 2-pointer, and 31 seconds into the second period, Robertson led 16-0.
Heretofore, West had picked up a couple isolated first downs only to have the stout Cardinal defense usher the Dons off the field with quick tackles or broken up passes on third down. Midway through the second quarter, the home team began to make some noise. Montaño got the Dons across midfield with a pass to Dillon Encinias. Then a 15-yard face-mask penalty vs. Robertson gave the Dons consecutive first downs. Several runs later, Montano rushed for a 5-yard touchdown, and with 8:19 left in the quarter, it was 16-6.
The Redbirds retaliated with a 3-yard TD run by Lucero and his third 2-point conversion of the game. The score was 24-6 — the visitors’ largest lead of the afternoon -— with 6:55 to go in the half.
As with the previous defensive series, Robertson had a costly penalty to help West drive downfield. A Montaño pass completion was supplemented with a late-hit flag, and moments later Montaño punched in from the RHS 2. Nathan Vigil, back to the West lineup after being sidelined early in the season with an injury, added a 2-point conversion to make it 24-14 with 4:16 left.
Appetites whetted for more scoring, each side had a drive end on downs before halftime.
Robertson fumbled the ball on the kickoff to open the second half, and Andy Gabaldon scooped up the football, securing possession for West at the Robertson 37. Jake Ulibarri, who’d rushed for nearly 300 yards and four scores the previous weekend in an overtime loss at Raton, scored on the next play, pulling West within 24-20 at the 11:40 mark.
Defense dominated the next several series. After three punts, Robertson’s J.R. Gonzalez intercepted a Montaño lob, and the Cards took over at their own 46.
Nathan Archuleta completed the ensuing drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 30-20 with 2:52 on the clock.
West answered right back. Vigil ran for a 15-yard gain, and Montaño hit Jorge Gallardo for a 41-yard pickup stopped just shy of the end zone. On the next play, Montaño scored his third TD of the afternoon, and it was 30-26.
A four-minute march, aided by a roughing penalty, concluded with Gonzales’ 8-yard TD run around right tackle. With 8:35 to go, the Cards’ lead was back to double digits at 36-26.
J.R. Gonzalez, an emergent playmaker on the RHS defense, came up with his second turnover of the day on a muffed kick return to follow James Gonzales’ touchdown. Robertson set up shop at the WLV 8.
The Dons defense made a major stand, backing the Redbirds up to the West 12 and forcing a turnover on downs with 7:10 left. But the offense had no better luck moving the ball, and the Dons had to punt.
Archuleta’s 21-yard rush on a sweep around right tackle highlighted the next drive and set up L’Esperance’s 11-yard score with 3:12 remaining. With a banged-up Lucero on the RHS sideline, Archuleta tried the 2-point conversion but was denied, keeping the score 42-26, which held up as the final tally.
SIDELINES: Robertson was awarded the No. 6 seed in the Class 3A state playoffs and will host No. 10 Portales this coming Saturday at Cardinal Stadium. The winner meets No. 3 Ruidoso. (See Wednesday’s Optic for more information on the bracket.) ... West Las Vegas ended a three-year scoreless drought in Vegas Bowl games, and it was the most the Dons have scored in the East-West matchup since 2003, a 38-7 WLV win ... Robertson leads the all-time series 30-21-1 ...
Among the fans in attendance Friday: New Mexico Highlands football coach Eric Young and a couple of his assistants; and John “Chante” Roanhaus, who was an offensive line guru on the Cardinals teams that won state titles.