Curry County Cats take opener

CNJ staff photo: Kevin Wilson Curry County Cats kick returner Jacob Jones steps out of bounds after slipping past New Mexico Crush defender Raul Anaya during the first quarter of Saturday’s game at Leon Williams Stadium.

CNJ staff

The biggest play for the Curry County Cats might have been the opposition’s extra-point conversion.

Cade Wheeler, playing his first game at Leon Williams Stadium since his 1996 senior season for the Wildcats, returned a blocked point-after kick 93 yards, touching off a series of huge plays that turned the team’s semipro debut into a 43-31 win over the New Mexico Crush onSaturday afternoon at Leon Williams Stadium.

The Cats scored the next two times on huge gains, and an opportunistic defense made the lead stand up against the defending New Mexico Premier League champions.

As the scheduled 2 p.m. kickoff approached, not everything ran smoothly — most notably the Crush’s bus, which broke down in Santa Rosa. By the time the Crush arrived and got in their warmup time, the 700-plus fans who came had waited an extra 67 minutes with no cloud cover.

The Cats offense started slow too, going three-and-out on their first two series.

It was 10 minutes into the game before the Crush got the scoring going, as former Eastern New Mexico University quarterback Bobby Rodriguez hit Eric Peralta for a 26-yard pass and a 6-0 lead.

It became 6-2 quickly, as Jesus Carillo’s conversion kick was blocked, and Wheeler got a wall of blockers escorting him down the left sideline.

“When that happened, the momentum shot up,” Cats coach Paul Lopez said. “That’s what set it all off.”

Just two plays into the ensuing drive, former Wildcats quarterback Quin Culiver found Tyrone Gallegos on a quick slant, and he did the rest of the work for a 71-yard reception.

Culiver alternated possessions with another former Clovis signal caller, John Props, who found Jacob Jones for a 77-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter.

Otherwise, the Cats didn’t have a first down for the first 20 minutes and still controlled matters with a 15-6 lead.

“That’s the thing about the spread,” said Lopez, a former Wildcat who coached at New Mexico Highlands. “We won a conference championship with that offense. You put speed out there, you get two or three big plays and that’s all you need.

“There’s going to be a dropped ball. There are going to be missed routes. Out of six or seven bad plays, there’s one good one. That’s what we have the speed guys out there for.”

Lopez said non-Clovis players came up big too, and noted it was nice to see Joe Stevens — a military move-in who had never played high school football — score a touchdown as well.

Other former Wildcats came up huge on defense, as well. Diondre Hunter, a 2008 Clovis grad, ended consecutive Crush drives with a fumble recovery and interception and 2009 Clovis grad Josh Bryan returned a second-half interception for a score.

“If it wasn’t for the defense,” Lopez said, “we might have lost.”

Lopez said the community showed great support, and he hoped for a similar turnout when the Cats host the Las Cruces Kings at 2 p.m. Saturday.