The Robertson Cardinals are in the state championship game for the fifth time in the last seven years. Seeing the Cardinals make it here is not unusual. It’s almost expected. With any team that makes it this far, there is no shortage of adversity and obstacles they have to overcome and the 2021 team is no different in that regard. 

It started off about as bad as it could in week one, when the Cardinals went on the road and lost 34-8 to Santa Fe High School. The Cardinals entered the game without head coach Leroy Gonzalez, who was forced to watch from the booth because of health complications. The season could not have started out worse, but coach Gonzalez believes a lot of good came from that loss.

“We saw a lot of good things against Santa Fe High, I did,” Gonzalez said. “Watching film I said we didn’t quit, we scored late. We figured out that, ‘hey we gotta play fast,’ and that’s our motto, play fast, play hard and play aggressive.”

The Cardinals quickly bounced back with a 46-0 victory over Cobre in week two and all was right in the world of Robertson football. That was the first of six straight victories over largely inferior competition. Aside from the 12-7 win against 4A state finalist Ruidoso in week four, the Cardinals won their games by at least 35 points, including three by mercy rule. It was clear the Cardinals were solid, but just how good were they? Could this team compete for a state championship?

That was the question going into the Oct. 8 game at Raton, which was undefeated at the time and ranked No. 2 in 3A. After several easy victories in a row where games were essentially over before halftime, could the Cardinals compete with one of the legitimate contenders in 3A?

The Cardinals did not get the result they wanted, a 28-26 heartbreaking loss to the Tigers in one of the best games in 3A this season. That game did prove one thing, though.  It proved to the Cardinals and everybody else that Robertson was capable of beating anybody. Raton had brought their A game, and Robertson went blow for blow with them right until the final whistle. Robertson is a young team with just six seniors on the roster. For that group of young players, it was proof that they could win a state championship.

“It boosted our confidence a lot because we played good, but we didn’t play our best game,” senior quarterback Mat Gonzales said. “We played good enough to be in the game, but if we play a complete game I don’t think anyone can beat us.”

Mat Gonzales run

Mathew Gonzales (8) searches for the hole in the first quarter of Saturday’s game against Socorro. Gonzlaes has powered the potent Cardinal offense this season with 41 total touchdowns this season.

The Raton game was also when senior quarterback Mathew Gonzales found himself as the engine of this offense. That night Gonzales became the Cardinal offense, and the Raton game was the start of a five game stretch in which Gonzales has been playing as well as anyone in the state. In his last five games, Gonzales has accounted for 23 touchdowns and has powered the Cardinals offense which has been unusually high powered. The Cardinals have averaged over 37 points per game this season, even scoring 40 or more against ranked opponents St. Michael’s and West Las Vegas to close out the regular season. This version of the Cardinal offense started that night in Raton, when Gonzales threw for 208 yards and ran for another 100 yards and four touchdowns. That game was the first time the Cardinal coaching staff really let Gonzales loose, and since then he’s been all but unstoppable.

After the loss to Raton, the Cardinals have reeled off four straight wins, all against teams who were in the top six of the 3A playoff bracket. Usually a hard-nosed physical running team, the 2021 Cardinals are a team that will spread you out and attack whatever they feel is available and can run and throw the football at a high level. This four-game winning streak has seen them win games several different ways. Against St. Michael’s, and in their first matchup against West Las Vegas, it was the offense that shined as they scored 84 points combined in the two games. In their second matchup with the Dons, the defense played lights out in a 27-6 victory. Against Socorro in the semifinals, it was a complete game, one where the offense could not be stopped, and once the defense found their footing in the second half, was able to shut down Socorro long enough to put them away in a 38-29 victory.

Coach Gonzalez has said all year that he wants his team playing his best football late in the season. They played probably their best half of football all year in the second half against Socorro. There’s just one game left this season and it’s for all the marbles, if the Cardinals can beat the Horsemen for the second time in five weeks they are state champions for the second time in Gonzalez’s tenure as head coach. This team is not the typical Leroy Gonzalez team, but Gonzalez and the rest of the coaching staff recognize that and coach accordingly. While they still preach the principles of hard-nosed football, they know that this team is at their best playing a little differently. When push comes to shove, this team can still run the football on anybody, they average 217.2 yards per game on the ground. But when this team is special is when they are able to balance the run and the pass. That balance has powered them on a late season surge and has them just 48 minutes away from lifting the blue trophy.

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