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State preview: It's all about redemption for Wildcats

Nick Maes (44) and Jacob Jones stop Highland quarterback Ian Clark for a short gain. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

There was no panic. No wholesale lineup changes. No tweaking of offensive or defensive schemes. Just a concrete belief in a time-tested system of hard work and discipline.

But it took a while for the concept to sink in.

A tough pre-district schedule further compounded the Clovis Wildcats’ early-season struggles.

The Wildcats looked feeble in their season opener against Mayfield and three weeks later were embarrassed at home again, with top-ranked La Cueva administering a 40-0 whipping that left Clovis at 1-3 for the season and the coaches and players wondering what had gone wrong.

“La Cueva was really the low point in the season,” Wildcats senior guard Jared Brown said. “We realized we were going to have to work harder every day if we were going to make the playoffs.”

And they did.

The turnaround started with a 28-21 win over Rio Rancho, a game that wasn’t decided until the final seconds. It was the start of an eight-game winning that has landed the Wildcats (9-3) in the Class 5A state title game for the second time in four years.

The District 4-5A champs host unbeaten and defending state champion La Cueva (12-0) in Saturday’s title game.

Clovis coach Eric Roanhaus said he started seeing a difference in his team after the Rio Rancho win.

“We won a game we could have easily lost,” Roanhaus said. “Then we went down and beat a good Goddard team; shut them out. And that kind of got us going.”

Roanhaus said he never lost faith in his players or coaching staff.

“The hardest selling job I have is to get the kids to believe in themselves and their teammates,” Roanhaus said. “Just like life, when you get yourself in a rut, you’ve got to work yourself out of it.”

And they did.

All of a sudden, a revamped offensive line that was breaking in four new starters began to mesh, which in turn gave senior running back Phillip Williams the room he needed to run.

And run he did.

Over the last eight games, Williams has rushed for nearly 1,600 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound speedster topped the 200-yard mark in five of those games.

Williams, who set a preseason goal to lead the state in rushing, said early in the season he was pressing.

“I realized that I was trying too hard to break the big one,” said Williams, who is at 1,838 yards on the season. “I have to just be patient and let it happen.”

Brown credits the line’s improvement to better work habits and communication.

Before each practice, the line warms up by hitting the blocking sled, which is usually reserved for preseason drills.

“It’s good for us,” Brown said. “It gets us moving our feet and that’s the most important thing in blocking.”

The extra work has also helped the group commonly referred to as the “hogs.”

“We started believing in ourselves,” Brown said. “Early in the year it was 11 guys on 11 different pages. Now its 11 guys doing the same thing.”

Led by bruising senior end Jason Burns, rangy strong safety Devin Sweet and improved linebacker play, the Wildcats also made drastic improvement on defense.

After giving up 116 points in their first four games, the Wildcats ended the season with four shutouts in the last eight games. Eliminated were the mental miscues in the first month of the season that allowed big plays with frightening frequency, replaced by the hard-hitting, stingy style of defense that has been the trademark of Clovis teams since Roanhaus took over in 1978.

“They’re starting to understand that they don’t have to make the tackle to make the play,”Clovis defensive coordinator Darren Kelley said after the Wildcats blanked Goddard and Carlsbad in back-to-back games. They just need to take care of their responsibilities.”

The Wildcats finished the district season unbeaten but there were still plenty of doubters when Clovis drew Mayfield in the first round of the playoffs — the same Mayfield team that mauled the Wildcats 35-0 to open the season in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicated.

But the Wildcats silenced their doubters, beating Mayfield 15-7 behind an inspired defensive effort. The Wildcats held the once-beaten Trojans to 6 yards in the second half, including minus-15 yards rushing. So dominant were the Wildcats that on their last possession, the Trojans faced a fourth-and-43.

“These kids have the innate ability to play their best in games we’ve needed to win,” Roanhaus said.

There will be no bigger game this season than Saturday when Clovis faces the formidable Bears, who have won 25 straight games.