Prep football: Cibola has made an impressive turnaround

By James Yodice / Journal Staff Writer
Published: Friday, November 15th, 2013 at 12:05am
Updated: Friday, November 15th, 2013 at 11:27pm

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Upon reflection, Rod Williams’ blueprint contained just the right specs.

Cibola’s football coach in August said confidently – almost defiantly – that he had a competitive team on his hands. It was a bold proclamation for a man who was inheriting a 1-9 program.

This team, Williams said, was fully capable of competing with the Rio Rancho schools that had been beating them down in recent years, as well as Volcano Vista.

This, Williams promised, would not be the same old Cibola. He needed only to convince his team of this.

Three months later the Cougars are a playoff team.

They sprung to life with surprisingly little incubation, going from 1-9 to 7-3 in a span of 12 short months.

“The main thing is, we came in with a system and a philosophy, a formula I had put together for years,” Williams said.

There is no team in the Class 5A playoffs with a story like Cibola’s.

Not only did the Cougars complete one of the most remarkable rebound seasons in the history of Albuquerque Public Schools, they vaulted themselves into a No. 6 seed for the first round of the playoffs, which for them begin Saturday afternoon at Community Stadium against No. 11 Hobbs.

The question, simply, is this: How? How do you explain a six-game reversal in one season?

“Attitude change and hard work,” senior linebacker Nik Molina said. “There’s not really negativity anymore. We work together. There’s (no) division.”

Williams, of course, is the new ingredient. He is a first-year head coach. He immediately set out to repair the football team and, simultaneously, its image.

When Cibola nearly beat Valley in Week 1, people noticed.

When Cibola did beat Sandia in Week 2, people were talking.

All three of the Cougars’ losses came to top-four playoff seeds: Valley, Las Cruces, Cleveland. That opening-night, 33-31 loss to Valley, a game Cibola led by 10 points in the final four minutes, probably did more good than harm.

Still, the scope of this turnaround is rare.

Since the early 1950s, there are only four other examples within APS of a team making more than a six-game improvement from one regular season to the next.

Williams made clear from the beginning that Cibola’s voyage back to respectability would be communal, an interactive process that would strengthen the locker room and also bolster the relationship between the team and the neighborhoods and businesses that surround the campus.

“It’s who we are,” Williams said. “It’s what we represent. Embrace it.”

The team division, which Williams said was “obvious,” was erased. But what exactly is the “it” that defines this comeback?

“The culture of bringing back school spirit and the love of the game,” senior linebacker Conner Linson answered. “After last year, a lot of the guys weren’t feeling the same about football anymore.”

On the field, Williams, the offensive coordinator at Volcano Vista before Cibola hired him, introduced some new and exciting wrinkles. The Cougars won’t shy away from trickery, they’ve got a reliable back in Vincent Gallegos, and quarterback Derek Martinez is sneaky effective, especially when he’s on the move.

The defense has been solid, for the most part. It gave up 22 points a game, which is only eighth best among the 12 playoff teams. But Valley, Sandia, Las Cruces and Highland combined to score 140 points on Cibola the first month. The Cougars yielded only 81 points over the final six games.

“Everyone understands that you have to have an enthusiastic defense to be successful,” Molina said.

But probably even more urgent than revitalizing the offense or defense, Cibola learned – at last – how to finish games.

The Cougars had been undone last season by some second-half meltdowns. Williams’ response was to generate a more passionate, structured environment in the weight room in an effort to train them as closers.

In the last two weeks of the season, the Cougars trailed Rio Rancho 21-0 and Volcano Vista 21-6, but rallied to win both in the second half. Now Cibola looks to sustain this magic into the playoffs.

“I think we can be an effective playoff team if we execute and do what’s ahead of us,” Gallegos said.

“Everyone,” Linson added with a smile, “is pretty confident about the playoffs.”