By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
Melrose and Gateway Christian will end the football season the same way they started it — playing each other.
The defending champion Buffaloes visit Roswell for Saturday’s 1 p.m. six-man championship game against Gateway Christian, which suffered its only loss of the season at Melrose 50-28 on Aug. 26.
“We’ve come a long way this year, but so have they,” Melrose coach Dickie Roybal said. “I’m excited to see what we can do, and the kids are excited to play.”
Senior running back Carlos Ruiz, who missed Melrose’s final two regular-season games because of a heart murmur, leads the Buffs (11-0) into the finals. Meantime, the Warriors (9-1) rely heavily on junior quarterback-strong safety Jevvon Hunter, who has compiled around 1,400 yards rushing and 1,400 passing this season.
Gateway coach Shaun Wigley said Hunter has rushed for 20 touchdowns, thrown for 30 and caught two TD passes. In addition, he’s returned five interceptions for scores.
“We’re a young team this year (three seniors, including one who starts),” Wigley said. “I didn’t know how we were going to do. I knew we had talent again, but you still have to put it together.”
While Melrose pummeled District 3 rival Logan 86-40 in last week’s semifinal round, Gateway outlasted Mountainair 68-62 in three overtimes to advance.
Wigley said Gateway dropped its varsity program in 2003, a year after winning the six-man state title, when a number of players transferred to another school in a dispute over a coaching change. The Warriors have gone 16-3 in the past two seasons since the program was revived.
“We’ve far exceeded expectations,” Wigley said. “It’s really amazing how far we’ve come in a little over a year and a half.”
He said the Warriors are aware that they’re seen as the underdogs in this one.
“We’re used to being in that spot, but we enjoy playing Melrose,” Wigley said. “They’re a class group. They’re hard football players, but they’re good sports.”
The teams have played — and defeated — four common opponents in Tatum, Lake Arthur, Valley Christian and Mountainair.
Roybal warned not to read too much into the opening win over Gateway.
“It gives the kids confidence, but we’ve got to keep them (playing) at that level,” he said. “We can’t go in there thinking it’s going to be a cakewalk.
“But these kids are very intelligent, and they’ve made my job easy. When you have kids like that, it makes your team hard to beat.”