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Roswell pounds out playoff win

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Roswell High School senior Gabriel Najar rushes for a touchdown Saturday against Aztec at the Wool Bowl. (David Rocha Photo)

After falling behind 21-6 in the second quarter, the Roswell Coyotes scored 29 unanswered points and held on late against Aztec for a 42-35 win at the Wool Bowl Saturday afternoon to advance in the state playoffs.

Coyote senior standout Gabe Najar had 31 carries for 279 yards, with five rushing touchdowns, a 2-point conversion and a 25-yard pass reception to give him over 300 all-purpose yards in the quarterfinal playoff game.

“We feel good, we feel good right now,” said Najar, who had to leave the game briefly in the third quarter after being bent backwards on an awkward tackle. “It’s a big revenge week, so we’ve got to come back very strong.”

The Tigers finish their season at 6-6, while Roswell, 8-3, advances to the semifinals to play undefeated Belen at 2 p.m. Saturday at Belen. The winner of that game advances to the 5A championship to face either Artesia or Farmington.

Belen, ranked No. 2 in class 5A and 11-0 on the season, defeated Mirayuma, 46-21, Saturday afternoon, capped by 19 points from Belen in the fourth quarter. If Mirayuma had won, the Coyotes would have had one more home game before the 5A state championship game on Dec. 2.

Mission accomplished

The Coyotes accomplished their goal of controlling the ball for most of the game Saturday, wearing down the Aztec defense in a physical day of football at the Wool Bowl, and a game with numerous personal foul penalties on both squads, demonstrating the intensity of the competition in the playoffs when every senior faces his last possible prep football game.

Roswell head coach Jeff Lynn said penalties and “stupid stuff” put his squad down early.

“We held in there and we fought back, but if we’re going to move forward in this tournament, we’re going to have to play a lot better,” Lynn said. “We’re going to have to eliminate those penalties.”

After getting their first lead in the game midway through the third quarter, the Coyotes gambled, and executed a successful onside kick, capitalizing on it later in the third quarter when Najar scored his fifth rushing touchdown of the game. Aztec made a run late, but Najar recovered the Tigers’ onside kick to seal the playoff victory.

Roswell senior Brandon Perez said the Coyotes kept their composure and continued to execute their game plan after falling behind to Aztec 21-6 midway through the second quarter.

“I had faith in my team this whole time, we just tried to pull it through,” said Perez, who had one catch for 25 yards on the offensive side, and seven tackles and Roswell’s one interception on the defensive side. Reese, junior Justin Carrasco and sophomore Joel Sanchez all had seven tackles.

“We had some mistakes, but we learned from them,” Perez said. “We’ve just got to do our jobs in practice, stay focused, stay humble. We’ve got to study, got to be prepared.”

Play by play

Aztec got on top early on its first possession, with senior quarterback Cody Smith leading an 11-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that included a pair of successive quarterback draws for 35 yards. On 2nd and 15 at the Roswell 16-yard line, Smith pitched to sophomore running back Brian Tapia, who was met by the Coyote defense at the goal line, but Tapia managed to push forward and strike pay dirt.

The extra point kick by Kaylee Madewell made it 7-0 Aztec with 7:31 left in the first quarter.

The Coyotes turned the ball over on downs on their first possession, as Roswell did not utilize Najar on the opening possession.

Aztec turned the ball over on its next possession when Smith threw an interception to Perez on fourth down.

On Roswell’s next possession starting at the 11-yard line, Najar entered the game on a mission, picking up 46 yards on his first two carries.

After picking up two more first downs, Najar got tied up near the goal line on a 1st and goal rush, but Najar lunged backwards into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown run that made it 7-6 Aztec with 2:49 left in the first quarter. Najar had five carries for 76 yards in the seven-play touchdown drive.

A chop block penalty negated a successful extra point kick and backed Roswell up to the 23-yard line, where the next extra point kick from Sanchez was wide left.

Smith again led the Tigers on a long touchdown drive that included a 33-yard pass to senior Justin Black.

On third and goal at the 11, Smith connected with senior Tanner Brooks in the left corner of the end zone to cap the nine-play, 72-yard touchdown drive early in the second quarter.

Madewell’s extra point made it 14-6 Aztec with 11:54 left in the second quarter.

Najar topped 100 yards rushing in the game on Roswell’s next possession, picking up a pair of first downs, as the Coyotes drove from their own 27-yard line into the Aztec red zone.

On fourth and 7 at the 14-yard line, Lynn called Najar’s number again.

Najar broke through a big hole on the right side, but was brought down by an outstanding one-on-one tackle to kill the drive as Roswell came up short and turned the ball over on downs with 9:06 left in the second quarter. It was Roswell’s second turnover on downs in the first half.

The Tigers looked like they were going to run away with the game on their next drive, which started at their own 4-yard line. On the first play of the drive, Smith connected with junior Zach Taylor on a perfectly thrown pass to Taylor’s outstretched hands for a 37-yard pass into good defensive coverage.

The Coyote defense then stood strong, backing up Aztec near midfield. On fourth and 4, Smith dropped back to punt. But Aztec executed a fake punt as Smith ran for 17 yards and a first down.

“On the fake punt, our ends didn’t get wide enough,” Lynn said.

On third and 3 at the Coyote 32-yard line, Smith ran a QB keeper to the right side, broke a tackle, and got into the open field for a touchdown. Madewell’s extra point made it 21-6 Aztec as some in the home crowd began mumbling.

29-point comeback

What would have been a 42-yard kickoff return by Sanchez was called back by a penalty as Roswell began its next drive at its own 7-yard line, down by two touchdowns.

A first down carry from senior Daniel Sosa, second-effort first down run by Najar, 12 man on the field penalty called on Aztec and 25-yard pass from Sosa to Najar over the middle, who went up and snagged the catch in traffic, demonstrated the resiliency of the Coyotes this season.

On first and 10 at the Aztec 17, Najar dragged a pile of defenders to the goal line. On the next play, the 12th play of the drive, Najar ran it in over the left tackle for his second touchdown carry of the game.

The extra point kick by Sanchez made it 21-13 Aztec with 2:17 left in the second quarter.

Aztec then drove into Roswell territory, but turned the ball over on downs on a dropped pass on fourth down. The Coyotes scrambled to score, taking over with 1:05 left in the second quarter, but the first half ended with an incomplete pass from senior Michael Ponce out of the end zone. Roswell rotated Ponce and Sosa at quarterback Saturday as they have all season.

Second half

Roswell received the kickoff to open the second half and continued a streak of 29 unanswered points.

After taking over at their 32, Ponce carried the pile to midfield. A few plays later, on second and 5 at the Aztec 27, Najar took the rock over the left tackle, cut to the middle and got into the open field for his third rushing touchdown of the game.

Roswell attempted a 2-point conversion, but Najar was stopped short, with the score 21-19 Aztec with 10:30 left in the third quarter.

The Tigers picked up a first down on their next possession, but punted when faced with a fourth and 3 near midfield. Smith, also serving as Aztec’s punter, booted a kick to the Roswell 10-yard line, where sophomore Jasia Reese ran it back 30 yards. Reese finished the game with 158 yards rushing on 17 carries.

The Coyotes continued to put the ball in the hands of Najar, who rushed on a streak of six of seven consecutive running plays by Roswell. On second and goal at the Aztec 8-yard line, Najar ran the ball into the end zone off the right tackle for his fourth rushing touchdown of the game, which put Roswell up for the first time in the game, 25-21.

Najar ran a 2-point conversion in up the middle to make it 27-21 Roswell, with 5:26 left in the third quarter.

Onside kick

Roswell then executed the successful onside kick, taking over at midfield.

“We had the momentum,” Lynn said. “We had gone down and scored twice. We went down and scored to open the (second) half, then we got a stop and we went down and scored again. We just felt like we had the momentum and we wanted to keep the pressure on them. We felt like that was the right call at the right time and we were fortunate to recover it.”

On the second play of the drive, Najar was brought down by a neck tackle that bent him backwards, forcing him to leave the game briefly. Both teams called timeouts during the drive, giving Najar time to stretch it out.

Perez picked up a first down on fourth and 1, as Najar returned to the backfield. Reese picked up a first down cutting and juking to the middle, setting up a first and goal at the Aztec 9.

On second and goal, Najar ran it in over the right tackle, his fifth touchdown of the game, as Roswell went up 33-21.

Reese ran in the 2-point conversion to make it 35-21 with 2:54 left in the third quarter.

Aerial assault

After giving up 29 unanswered points, Aztec went to the air on the first play of its next possession as Smith threw deep to Brooks, who hauled in the pass near midfield and wasn’t brought down until the 5-yard line on the 69-yard pass completion.

“We’ve just got kids looking at the wrong thing,” Lynn said. “We kind of lost our focus a couple times and gave up some big ones. We’ve got to get those cleaned up. The penalties and the big plays, you can’t have that in playoff football.”

On third and goal at the Roswell 1-yard line, Smith kept the ball to the right side and ran untouched into the end zone.

Madewell’s extra point made it 35-28 Roswell with 1:17 left in the third quarter.

“We just couldn’t put them away, and in the playoffs, you’ve got to put people away,” Lynn said.

The Coyotes quickly bit back, pounding the ball on the ground and downfield, thanks to a 42-yard run by Reese, as the third quarter ended with the Coyotes up a touchdown.

Fourth quarter

Opening the fourth quarter, the Coyotes were set up with a first and goal at the Aztec 5. Sosa ran around the left end for a touchdown that made it 41-28 Roswell. Sanchez’s extra point made it 42-28 with 11:54 left in the game.

Aztec picked up ground quickly on its possession as Smith passed and ran the football. After a false start penalty, the Tigers faced a fourth and 7 at the Roswell 11. Smith threw short and incomplete to turn the ball over on downs.

The Coyotes chewed up the clock, moving the ball to midfield, as the time of possession differential widened. But Roswell punted when the drive stalled, backing the Tigers up to their own 15.

Aztec failed to pick up a first down and had to punt after facing a fourth and 14 at their own 16-yard line. The punt by Smith rolled for 54 yards, backing Roswell up to their 30-yard line with 5:09 left in the game.

A big fourth down run by sophomore Dominic Nava kept Roswell’s drive going, but the Coyotes fumbled the football with 2:08 remaining to keep Aztec’s hopes alive.

Last gasp

Smith passed the Tigers downfield for 50 yards on four plays, giving Aztec a second and 1 at the Roswell 16-yard line.

Smith then found a wide open Brooks in the end zone for a touchdown. Madewell’s extra point made it 42-35 Roswell with 46 seconds remaining.

Aztec attempted an onside kick, but Najar recovered it. The Coyotes took a knee on their last two plays to kill the clock and advance to the next round of playoffs.

“We had them the first half,” said Aztec head coach Matthew Steinfeldt. “Coach Lynn and his staff did a great job and that’s the difference in the game.”

Steinfeldt said Roswell’s 29-point run late in the second quarter and throughout the third quarter was too much to overcome.

“Going into the third period, there was a period where four of the six possessions went to Roswell,” Steinfeldt said. “We had one down here where we dropped the ball on fourth down and we’re in scoring position. We score right then and there, we’re up two points right near the end of the half. That was the turning point for us. Then we allow them to get four of six possessions and score all of those points. That’s not on us as a coaching staff, that’s on me.”

Najar said the Coyotes had a little bit of a rough start.

“We were never worried being down at halftime,” Najar said. “It was only the first half and you have to stay up. Once they started bouncing to the inside, that’s when we started going back inside running the football.”

“At halftime, we went in and stayed focused and picked up the intensity in the second half,” Reese added. “Coach Lynn told us to just relax. I was just reading my blocks, my lineman did a great job.”

Lynn said he had confidence in his team to move the football.

“I wasn’t worried about them scoring because we were moving the ball,” Lynn said. “And they never really stopped us. I never really panicked, but we had to eliminate mistakes and penalties. We played as bad as we have all year and were able to win.”

Sports writer J.T. Keith contributed to this report.