CAPITAN – After the kickoff in Saturday’s Class 3A State championship game, it took just 12 seconds for the Capitan Tigers to take the lead.
Stephen Ellison took the ball on the first play from scrimmage and ran into the endzone 64 yards later for a 7-0 Tiger lead.
But Capitan coach James Weems knew better than to get too confident with District 4-3A opponent Eunice.
“I thought it was great to get out to that start, but I knew better,” Weems said. “Last time, Eunice gave us all we could handle. That’s the best defensive team we’ve faced all year, including Estancia.”
Turns out Weems knew what he was talking about, as Eunice turned a 21-6 halftime deficit into a 26-21 lead before finally falling, 27-26.
It marked Capitan’s first State title since winning a 1A crown way back in 1982, back when a man named Mel Holland was the coach.
“It feels amazing, to win a state championship,” said senior Alejandro Trujillo, who was cleared to play just the day before after suffering a broken hand in last week’s State semifinal against Dexter. “To finally win it feels so amazing.”
Capitan (12-1) owned the first half, outpacing the Cardinals (8-5) in almost every category.
Every category but one – passing. Eunice scored its only touchdown in the first half on a 76-yard pass from Mason Caperton to Cameron Santa Cruz with 4:04 left in the first quarter.
While the Cardinals couldn’t move the ball on the ground – Juan Sosa led Eunice with just 11 yards – their passing game was on fire.
Caperton finished with 248 yards in the air, connecting for three of the Cardinals’ four scores on the day.
Capitan countered with 228 yards on the ground, led by Ellison with 120 on 16 carries.
That he had that many yards is even more impressive considering he came out of the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury and was never really the same after that, even though he did re-enter the game.
In fact, it was that injury that seemed to take a lot of air out of the Tigers’ sails.
“You see how hard it gets for us when we lose a man,” Weems said. “But they fought back, like they have all year. They just plugged away.”
Eunice started their comeback in the third quarter on a five-yard pass from Caperton to Santa Cruz with 10:04 left, followed up by a 51-yard bomb to Chester Miller just two minutes later.
Eunice was helped by Capitan’s sudden weakness when it came to penalties – the Tigers’ Achilles heel all year long.
In fact, the drive that ended with Santa Cruz’s second score was kept alive by three Capitan pass interference calls.
“We just gelled. You’ve seen this all year long,” Weems said. “We have some penalties and turnovers that go against us, but this team has such fight in them, it’s just amazing to be a part of.”
Turnovers didn’t help, either. Two fumbles and an interception stopped three potential scoring drives for the Tigers, including one that started on the Cardinal 20.
After Sosa scored on a seven-yard run near the end of the third quarter and Capitan again gave the ball away, it marked a turning point in the contest.
The Tigers needed a defensive stop, and then they needed to score. Even though there was still 10:45 left in the game, Capitan needed to gain momentum right then or they might not have been able to recover.
“They looked at me for the signal, and I gave them the heart-tap,” said Capitan’s defensive coordinator Jason Hightower, touching his chest. “They knew what it meant, they had to give everything they had in the last minute and a half. They knew what it meant to give every little bit they had left.”
After getting that much-needed defensive stop and getting the ball back on their own 43, the Tigers seemed to shoot themselves in the foot numerous times, but were able to convert on two fourth-down plays to eventually get to the Cardinal 5.
That’s when Bowen was able to race into the endzone – he was the go-to guy with Ellison not touching the ball – for the final score and final lead of the game.
“No pressure, I really can’t explain it,” said Bowen, who was named MVP of the game. “I give it all to our coaches, they made the right calls all through the game. (Coach Weems) is the one who told us all to keep going after Stephen came out.”
Weems was also very appreciative of the linemen he got to play behind.
“They’re a force to be reckoned with, that’s all I can say about that,” Bowen said. “They proved how good they are today.”
While Capitan now had the lead, it was razor thin, and there was still 4:42 left in the game after the kickoff.
But Caperton threw an interception on the very next play to Jacob Smith to keep momentum on the Tigers’ side.
“That was just good defense,” Smith said. “I read it, (the receiver) slipped, and I took advantage of it.”
“That was huge,” Weems said of Smith’s interception. “That was probably the biggest one for us, that turned everything around.”
Even though Capitan got the ball back, they couldn’t convert it to a score, turning the ball over on downs with 1:21 left. That meant the Cardinals had one last gasp.
However, three incomplete passes spelled doom for Eunice, as Capitan go the ball back on downs and went into its victory offense to secure the victory.
While there were more than a few seniors on the team – including Alejandro Trujillo, Devan Wooddell and Brontson Leach – a majority of the roster featured juniors.
That included Ellison, Bowen, Smith, Caleb Hightower, Gabriel Gallegos and Clay Bob Stearns.
“There’s good things happening here,” Weems said. “It’s a great group. They’re very small in numbers, but they’re very big in heart and desire.”
“Hopefully, we can come back next year and do it again,” Smith added.
Notes: How dominant was the Capitan defense against the Cardinals’ running game? At halftime, Sosa was the only Eunice player with positive yards on the ground – with just three yards. He ended up leading Eunice with 11 . . . The Tigers won their title thanks to a number of extremely tough kids. Capitan likely has the smallest number of players on its roster in Class 3A – according to MaxPreps, the Tigers have 21 players, compared to 47 for Eunice . . . Now it’s on to the hardwood for Capitan. With as small a roster as they have, almost every football player will be moving to basketball. But they’ve got just part of a day now to prepare for their season opener at New Mexico Military Institute on Dec. 5.