By Dave Wagner
LOVING — Texico finished the season unbeaten but not unchallenged.
Locked in a dogfight with District 3-1A rival Loving, the top-ranked Wolverines scored two touchdowns in the span of 1 1/2 minutes late in the game to take a 21-6 victory on Saturday afternoon in the Class 1A state championship game.
Texico finished the season 12-0 en route to the school’s fourth state football title. The Wolverines allowed just 19 points all season.
Loving (8-4), though, made it tough despite being outgained 311-116.
“We had to work for it, and that’s the best thing about it,” Texico coach Mike Prokop said. “Loving definitely made us work.”
Texico has finished second four times since 1997, including the last two years to Fort Sumner.
Junior quarterback Braden Vaughan rushed for 167 yards and a touchdown, and senior halfback Mark Peabody added 117 yards on the ground. But it was Vaughan’s only completion — a 13-yard TD strike to senior Joe Zaikowski with 3:52 left — that finally put the Wolverines ahead.
After Peabody ran in a two-point conversion, Texico salted it away following the kickoff when senior cornerback Jesse Serrano picked off a deflected pass and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown.
“Our linebacker (junior Logan Brown) read it,” Serrano said. “He went up for it and tipped it right into my hands.
“At halftime we talked about how we had to control the ball, execute and block. We just believed in each other. It just feels good to be on the winning side this time.”
Loving, which lost at Texico 33-0 in the district opener for both teams, was game this time. The Falcons just didn’t have enough weapons.
“You’ve got to give Texico credit,” Loving coach Jaime Ramirez said. “They’ve handled pretty much everybody. But I’m proud of my kids. We knew we were just as tough as they were, and for three quarters we showed that. They just took it away from us in the fourth quarter.”
Texico struggled to get going, but when Vaughan broke a 48-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the opening stanza it appeared the Wolverines were on their way.
Loving went three-and-out on its first four possessions, but the Falcons partially blocked a punt by Serrano to take over in Texico territory. They then put together their only four first downs of the half, capping it when quarterback Nathan Vasquez scrambled away from pressure and found sophomore Trey Merchant on a game-tying 12-yard scoring pass with six minutes left in the half.
“They had a good defensive scheme,” Texico offensive coordinator John Irwin said. “There were things that were open, but usually something (bad) happened.
“It meant a lot to me, being a close game and having some things go wrong,” he said of the title. “The kids will always remember this.”
The players said the Falcons simply gave them a tougher time than in the earlier meeting.
“They were playing great defense; I’ll give it to them, they’re a heck of a football team,” Vaughan said. “They’re the best defensive team we’ve faced all year.”
Before the Vaughan-to-Zaikowski TD pass, Texico did everything but score after halftime. When they took the lead, the Wolverines had run 33 plays in the half to just six for Loving.
“I think we kind of had a letdown in the second quarter, but for the most part we came back in the second half and started moving the ball,” said Zaikowski, who was also in on a couple of sacks from his defensive end position. “In your senior year, you kind of wish it wasn’t over, but it’s not a bad way to go out — losing one game in two years.”
Texico overcame the late-season losses of senior lineman-linebacker Toby Thornton (knee injury) and junior running back-defensive back Johnny Serrano (academics), both important players.
“That hurt,” Prokop said. “We had a lot of adversity, but the kids overcame it.
“Loving did a great job, but our kids just hung in there and fought.”