Clovis’ Tanner Fickling looks to turn the corner during practice Thursday at the high school. Clovis faces Onate today in a Class 5A semifinal game in Las Cruces. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Dave Wagner: CNJ Staff writer
Clovis High senior linebacker Jonathan Sweet expects a physical matchup when the second-ranked Wildcats play No. 3 Onate in a 1 p.m. Class 5A semifinal playoff matchup today at Las Cruces’ Field of Dreams.
“It’ll be a battle of meat on meat,” Sweet said. “Their best thing is to run (the ball), and our best thing is to stop the run.”
The winner meets top-ranked Mayfield , which beat No. 4 La Cueva 21-7 Friday in the other semifinal mathcup. The Cats (11-1) would have to travel if they reach the finals.
Clovis, which has won 11 in a row since a season-opening 7-0 loss to Mayfield at Field of Dreams, has been dominant in the first two rounds of the playoffs, blowing out Las Cruces High 42-6 and Manzano 49-14 at Leon Williams Stadium.
This will be the first road game in four weeks for the Cats, who have outscored seven opponents at home 300-64 but have posted a relatively narrow 86-70 margin against a road schedule in which four of five opponents were ranked.
“We’re playing well right now,” Kelley said. “Our kids are playing with confidence, and we’ve got everybody healthy. This time of year, it’s such a mental thing because everybody is physical.”
Onate, which erased a 16-point, second-quarter deficit to beat district rival Alamogordo 33-16 last week, is making the transition this year from Class 4A. But coach Kelly McKee said the adjustment hasn’t been that difficult because the Knights played all of their district rivals in the past as non-district opponents.
He said the Clovis and Onate play similar styles.
“They want to try to establish the run, just like we do,” McKee said. “They play a tough, aggressive defense. They’re probably the biggest offensive line we’ve go against this year, and their front seven on defense is very aggressive and very good.”
Sweet said the Cats, who reached the 5A finals last year only to lose to La Cueva, have to stay focused on the task at hand against a team they’ve never faced.
“We’ve just got to take it one game at a time,” said Sweet, who leads the Cats with 109 total tackles this season. “There are surprises around every corner.
“We’re jelling together. We realize that it’s the team that wins the game and not one person.”
The Knights’ top weapon is junior running back C.J. Oakley, a Division I prospect who has rushed for around 1,800 yards this season after moving over from a receiver position.
Kelley said Onate will likely run the ball about 90 percent of the time.
“They’re a physical team, and they run the ball probably as well as anyone we’ve played,” Kelley said. “They’re going to run it right at you.
“We can’t let them have eight or 10-play drives. We’ve got to be able to get our offense back on the field.”
On defense, Kelley said the Knights will try to confuse the Cats with stunts. Onate’s best player on that side of the ball, he said, is probably senior middle linebacker William Colon.
“They’re going to try to cause us to make mistakes in our blocking schemes,” he said.
Clovis at Onate
When: 1 p.m. today at Field of Dreams, Las Cruces. Winner advances to next week’s title game against Mayfield.
Records: Clovis 11-1, Onate 11-1.
Coaches: Clovis, Eric Roanhaus; Onate, Kelly McKee.
At stake: The Wildcats’ third trip to the state finals since 2001, when they won it all.
Last meeting: First time teams have played.
Last week: Clovis beat Manzano 49-14; Onate beat Alamogordo 33-16.
Onate players to watch: C.J. Oakley, 6-3, 211, Jr., RB-FS; Steven Wells, 5-8, 186, Sr., QB; Lucas Daugherty, 5-10, 175, So., FB; William Colon, 5-10, 210, Sr., MLB.
Keys to the game: Both teams want to establish the running game. Onate hopes to at least contain Clovis’ 1-2 big-play punch of RB Brian Mead and WR Rishard Matthews, while the Cats expect to have their hands full with Oakley.
By the numbers: The teams share four common opponents — both lost to Mayfield and have beaten Highland, Hobbs and Las Cruces High.
Quotable: “I think both (Class 5A) semifinal games will be slugfests. I think all four teams can run the football and take great pride in their defense.” — McKee.