Highland High School is in the midst of the most tumultuous and perhaps the most transient football season in the program’s illustrious history.
Thanks to decades of success, including five State Championships, Highland has never seen moments like this.
At a team reunion two months ago, about a week before the regular season opener against Eldorado, the school made what is perhaps an unprecedented decision to essentially withdraw from all the games in his calendar against bigger teams, including four in all.
Why? Highland, with just 20 players on the roster at the start of the season, mostly freshmen, had a severe shortage of athletes, especially those with football experience. And, said the Hornets coach, it would have been far too risky for their physical well-being.
“At the end of the day,” Highlands coach Philip Lovato said, “what we are trying to fight for is the safety of our children.”
With the season now in its second half, picking and picking which teams to play was, according to the Hornet players, the right path in hindsight.
âWe really thought it was the right thing to do,â said senior defensive center / lineman Diego Torres. He is one of only four seniors in the program.
“We met the younger ones and got their advice, and they wanted to do it so that their future could be a little better.”
Highland has kept all of its games against schools at its level, Class 5A in football, which is the second-highest in the state according to student enrollment. With help from the Albuquerque Public Schools district office, Highland even found two replacement games against smaller programs, West Las Vegas and Pojoaque Valley.
The Hornets have not played any scheduled competitions against 6A Eldorado, Albuquerque High, Organ Mountain, or Cibola schools.
By the numbers
There are three APS high schools that play at level 5A in football. Valley and Del Norte are the other two. Both have smaller student enrollments than Highland.
APS director of operations Gabriella Blakey said late last month Highland had around 1,230 students this school year. Del Norte has approximately 1,100 students and approximately 35 grade 9 to 12 football players. Valley has 1,065 students and approximately 35 football players.
At the other end of the APS spectrum is Volcano Vista, with approximately 2,300 students and nearly 130 players in its program. Atrisco Heritage has a similar registration rate.
The reduction in athlete participation, especially as the pandemic continues, is a problem not only for Highland football, but for many other programs as well. In fact, the pandemic has negatively impacted many boys and girls programs across all APS sports and across the state.
Several years ago, Albuquerque High and Rio Grande both became independent in football, where they played an entirely out-of-district program. In the case of AHS, this had to do with both a lack of players and a schedule the Bulldogs found too tough.
âWe couldn’t handle that type of schedule at the time,â Bulldogs coach Tim Johnson said.
AHS then joined District 2-6A this fall, but Rio Grande remains independent. The Ravens have fielded around 30 football players this fall, coach Dennis Minidis said, adding that most of them were underclass.
Highland’s specific problem from the start was playing against teams far beyond their weight class. The possibility of young athletes being injured is what prompted Lovato, his team – and, most importantly, the Highland administration – to withdraw from games they knew to be competitive rifts. Taking the four seniors off Highland’s roster, the average Hornet football player’s experience is barely 0.3 years, Lovato said. Even with these four, it’s less than 2 years.
There was, Lovato said, nothing to be gained by playing these games, for either school.
As late as Friday night, Highland knocked two players off the Milne Stadium field by ambulance in an 18-16 loss to Valley. One was a freshman, the other a junior freshman. Both had been released early Saturday morning, Lovato said.
Blakey said in an interview that she was sensitive about the lineup after having conversations with Lovato and Highland director Marco Harris. But Lovato knew he was taking care of the existing APS system as far as planning was concerned.
Lovato said: âI thought I was going to be fired. But Marco supported me. Without him, I would say 100% that I wouldn’t have a job.
Highland is 1-6 overall, although the Hornets have only played five games. Their record includes forfeits against Albuquerque High and Cibola. Highland will end the fall season with eight regular season games instead of 10. Highland replaced Organ Mountain with Pojoaque Valley. This game is a no-contest game for the Knights at this time, but the New Mexico Activities Association has yet to review Organ Mountain’s situation and there is a possibility that it could become a forfeit victory.
For Highland, the news is not all gloomy.
After the start of the season, around two dozen new players joined the Highland football program, and the Hornets had 45 much more manageable athletes by the end of September.
âIn my mind,â said Harris, âI think we’re in a fantastic space to seize this opportunity. I think Coach Lovato and his team are committed and have done an amazing job of creating invested and engaged young people – not just on the pitch, but (within the Highland community).
Blakey, a Highland graduate who returned to campus as a teacher and activities director before joining the district administration, helped facilitate the two planned replacement matches.
West Las Vegas, a 3A program that replaced Eldorado, beat Highland hands down in Week 1. But Highland beat Pojoaque Valley, a 4A school, on September 9th.
A stony road
This odd trip for Highland this season has, to some extent, ruffled some feathers.
Eldorado coach Charlie Dotson was not happy with the way things were handled until Highland called the game with his team, for example.
“(They) should have figured this out some time ago,” Dotson said as the cancellation became official. “I don’t blame anyone, but it’s the adults who don’t make the right decisions for the kids.”
Organ Mountain, Cibola and Albuquerque High will each end the season with just nine regular season games, one short of the maximum. Eldorado managed to secure a last-minute substitute game with West Mesa for his first game.
“I think it was a bad schedule from the start,” said Organ Mountain coach Steve Castille. “You know Highland is down, why they would put these guys to open the season against Eldorado in the first place didn’t make a lot of sense.”
Lovato further acknowledged that the unorthodox Highland path had even angered some Highland elders. He said many former Hornets may not be aware of how the dynamics of the program have changed since their time at Highland. But Lovato has said he would gladly take the brunt of any criticism as he wants the best for his current Highlands roster.
“I know some were not happy with our decision,” he said. âThey didn’t want these opportunities taken away from children. “
But Lovato said there is a huge divide between the haves of APS football and the have-nots. Schools like Highland, Valley, Rio Grande, West Mesa and Albuquerque High between 2004 and 2019 lost about 90% of their games to other APS high school teams, Lovato said.
âA lot of coaches are not happy with meâ¦ I got an easy win,â said Lovato.
Highland made the playoffs as recently as 2019.
Despite the many struggles, Highland believes the program is healthier than it has been in months and there is cause for genuine optimism, despite some recent injuries in the losses to Los Lunas and Valley. .
Even though half of Highland’s current 45 players are ninth graders, the constant flow of newcomers has allowed the school to schedule a JV match recently.
Blakey said the APS is also keen to examine how it can improve college athletics in Highland Elementary Schools to find a way to help athletes get involved in the sport at a younger age and stay in. the District of Highland. And she said APS is considering giving Highland more power to schedule their own football matches.
âOur kids in Highland are very good athletes. They are very talented, but it will show to them later in life, âsaid Blakey.
Lovato said it was important for Highland to make it clear that he is not seeking pity from anyone.
âWe are not victims,â he said firmly. âWe are defending ourselves. “
Harris echoed that sentiment.
âI think what I would say to people is that this is about maintaining the safety and educational educational opportunities that school sports are supposed to provide,â he said. âIt’s hard to deliver one of those for a 50-0 bombing.
âWe always believe in excellence. But sometimes you have to tear everything up to the end. “