The third Saturday in February is finally here – a day that many developmental football teams have been looking forward to for the past nine months. Several leagues across the nation kick off their regular season this weekend, including the Rio Grande Football League.
Last season, the Las Cruces (N.M.) Kings took the league title with a 23-22 win over the Sun City (El Paso, Texas) Reapers in the final minute of play to win the championship.
“The Kings threw seven interceptions that game and the defense was able to hold us in there,” Kings CEO and RGFL Board of Directors member Derek Smith told DFUSA. “One of the plays towards the end of the games, one of the defensive linemen hit the quarterback and got called for roughing the passer. The quarterback threw an interception, but it got called back and we got the ball back and scored with like 17 seconds left on the clock or something like that.”
It’s a new year now and all teams have a clean slate, plus the road to a title looks to have gotten much tougher for any team.
“I think that this year is going to be a really good year,” Smith told DFUSA. “We’ve had some really good years, but this year we’ve got a lot of new teams in the league and we are expanding in the West Texas area. It’s pretty much starting to become a joint league between New Mexico and Texas.”
The 10 teams in the league are split up into two, five-team divisions.
The Western Division is comprised of the Las Cruces Kings, the Alamogordo Desert Dawgs and three teams from El Paso – the Armor, the Sun Devils and the Sun City Reapers.
The Eastern Division consists of two New Mexico teams: the Curry County Cats – out of Clovis – and the New Mexico Rush, out of Carlsbad. They are joined by the West Texas Outlaws, of Lubbock, the West Texas Pride, of Midland-Odessa, and the West Texas Bulldogz of Amarillo.
All teams will play a 10-game regular season schedule, then the top three teams from each division will advance to the playoffs. The No. 1 seed from each division will have an opening-round bye and play the winner of the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds at home for a ticket to the championship game.
“This year we’re trying to do a neutral site game for the championship,” Smith said. “Possibly Artesia (N.M.) or somewhere like that.”
Right now all teams sit at 0-0 and will battle it out through the end of May to secure a playoff spot.
“With a lot of new teams coming in, I think there’s going to be a lot of surprises,” Smith said. “There’s going to be a lot of competition and if anybody in the league thinks they can look past any other team in the league, they have another thing coming. I don’t feel there is any team on any particular weekend that can’t show up and challenge the other.”
Despite being a first-year team, there are high expectations for the West Texas Pride to have a big season.
“I do believe the league thinks they will be a force to be reckoned with because they have so many people out there dedicated to football,” Smith said. “They have the Odessa area, the Midland area. I’ve heard of a few people from Lubbock going to play there, even Amarillo. Even though they are a first-year team, they have a lot of talent and I think that they’re going to do pretty good this year.”
Entering their 14th season, the West Texas Outlaws cannot be overlooked either as they have made the playoffs in 11 of 13 seasons, dating back to their inception in 2003.
“I think they’re also going to be pretty good,” Smith said. “They are pretty involved in the community. I’ve heard some pretty good stuff about them and that’s one of those teams I don’t think we’ll be able to look past.”
The Pride and Outlaws are both new to the RGFL, as is the West Texas Bulldogz of Amarillo.
“I do know their owner has a lot of motivation and he’s trying to get out there and get everybody involved,” Smith said. “Just like those other West Texas teams, I think they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with too. I know they’ve done a lot of recruiting in the off-season, like every team has.”
Like the Outlaws, the Curry County Cats of Clovis have been around for several years and is not to be overlooked, either.
“They do a lot of stuff for the community,” Smith said. “In the RGFL, most of the teams deal with the community. We go out and play football, but it’s a lot more. We try to promote each other. Most of the teams, if not all the teams are always getting involved in the community.”
Last, but not least, the New Mexico Rush – another first year team – could be a bit of a surprise and a sleeper pick to snag one of the playoff spots in the Eastern Division.
“Their owner used to be the owner of the Curry County Cats,” Smith told DFUSA. “He’s in Carlsbad now. They’ve got a lot of people from the Artesia area, Carlsbad and Roswell, former players from the The Lea County Lightning. They’ve also gotten some players from Lubbock, from the Hub City Bison like Trae Ivory.”
In the Western Division, the goal for a champion is always to repeat, but the Kings will have to fend off four other challengers in their division.
“We’re returning a lot of guys,” Smith said. We also got a lot of new faces. This week is a big one, we’re going up to Amarillo, which is an eight hour drive. We played the Seminoles in a pre-season game, won 25-0, but there’s still a lot of questions and things we need to tie up. This is going to be the longest road trip of the year and for whatever reason they decided to send us up to Amarillo for the first game of the year.”
Challenging the Kings is the 2015 runner-up Sun City Reapers and their cross-town rivals, the El Paso Armor and the El Paso Sun Devils.
“Last year the Sun City Reapers game against the Armor came down to the end,” Smith said. “The Armor actually came back from a deficit and they marched the ball all the way down and scored a touchdown, but instead of kicking a field goal they went for two and they threw an interception and the Reapers ran it all the way back. It was a pretty tough season, The Sun Devils and the Reapers always go back and forth, too.
Last but not least, to round out the East, is the Alamogordo Desert Dawgs, who host the West Texas Outlaws on opening weekend this Saturday.
“The Desert Dawgs will come to play and they will play until the end of the game,” Smith said. “They are a pretty stout team. A lot of the things about them, as with the Sun Devils, is that they have a lot of military on their team. Sometimes they get deployed or they’re out in the field and it’s hard for them to show up to games. When they do show up, they show out.”
Feb. 20 Schedule:
Las Cruces Kings @ West Texas Bulldogz (Amarillo)
West Texas Outlaws @ Alamogordo Desert Dogs
Sun City Reapers @ New Mexico Rush
El Paso Armor @ West Texas Pride (Midland)
Curry County Cats @ El Paso Sun Devils