Coach recalls 1988 Rams championship

By Eric Butler, Freedom Correspondent

Throw out names like Bob Crane and Roger Moore and people might think you’re talking about an early 1970s star-filled movie.

In Portales, those names have an entirely different connotation to some residents. And for those, fond memories are bound to pop up.

As the football team at Portales High prepares to host Lovington in Saturday’s Class 3A state championship game, members of the last Rams’ title-winning team are commemorating the 20th anniversary of their Class 3A state crown.

Crane, who still lives in Portales, was the coach for that 1988 team. As an assistant prior to becoming head coach, Crane did get to experience championships with the school back in 1979 and 1981.

But when the ‘88 season rolled around, Crane’s fifth as head coach, his group of athletes were far removed from those glory years.

In a way, however, that’s what made winning the state crown so special, according to the coach.

“We were playing a lot of sophomores (in 1986), who then became our seniors,” Crane said. “They had experienced both ends of the spectrum and I think that’s what made it so unique and so nice. They appreciated it so much because of it.”

Only two years before the state-winning year, Portales suffered through a 2-8 campaign. Even the year before going all the way, quarterback Michael Tillman recalled that the 6-4 Rams didn’t even get into the 3A playoffs.

“We were all pretty excited just to go (to the postseason),” said Tillman who was a senior in 1988. “That was when only the district champ and the runner-up got to go. And our district was the toughest one in the state.

“That was when Goddard was still 3A and Artesia was still 3A,” he added.

In the 1988 Class 3A championship game, Portales knocked off Ruidoso, then led by current Artesia coach Cooper Henderson, by a 31-15 score. Ruidoso at the time was not in the same district as the Rams, but Portales had played the Warriors earlier in the season and “beat them pretty soundly,” Crane said.

The Rams could have suffered from overconfidence in the title contest, held in Ruidoso, as Portales trailed 15-7 at halftime. But with the likes of running backs Jeff Hancock, Cippy Garcia and Jeff Cole, the Rams offense began to churn in the third and fourth quarters.

Crane remembered that Moore, a natural running back who sacrificed his slot to play tight end throughout the year, also got to play at his former position in the championship victory.

Defensively, Moore was also an outstanding linebacker for the Rams. Other defensive standouts included ends Charles Hale and Burel Gaston as well as junior cornerback Andrew Thelles.

A strong defense was particularly important in the state semifinals.

On a cold November day in Portales, with the field covered in snow, the Rams survived with an 8-7 win over Bloomfield to move into the championship.

The details of that game comes up in the minds of the participants seemingly as much as the title game itself.

“Oh man, that was freezing. Oh my gosh, that was so cold,” said Tillman, who now lives in Florida. “We knew we could beat Bloomfield, but there were so many things, looking back on it, that could have happened.”

Tillman recalled that one Portales fumble, deep in the Rams’ territory, fortuitously bounced out-of-bounds, allowing the Rams to keep possession.

After Portales scored a fourth-quarter touchdown and converted a crucial two-point conversion to go ahead, Crane said that Bloomfield’s speedy Albert Sategna got behind the Rams secondary on a pass play.

Luckily for Portales, the Bobcats’ quarterback threw too long and Sategna couldn’t catch up.

Maybe it was luck, maybe not. Tillman said that a sense of destiny seemed to surround the Rams as the season came to an end.

“We had done so much and we had come together so much as a team that we didn’t have any choice but to win the state championship,” Tillman said. “We knew it would happen.”

Game Day

Lovington (9-3) at Portales (9-3)

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Greyhound Stadium

At stake: Class 3A state title