The Escalante High School football team goes after each other during practice on the red turf in Tierra Amarilla. Escalante was 11-3 last season, but a season-ending 63-12 loss to Estancia High School in the Class 2A state football playoffs has motivated them to be stronger this season.
By George Morse
Escalante High School football coach Dusty Giles was not happy with his team’s performance at practice Tuesday and he let them know it. Players did not know where they were to line up. They didn’t know their plays. They walked instead of hustled. In just three days, the Lobos would take a long bus ride to take on Tucumcari High School Friday in Tucumcari. He pulled no punches when he addressed the team at the end of practice.
“If we play like we did today, we’re going to take a 4-to-5 hour bus ride and get the crap beat out of us,” Giles said.
During defensive drills, players weren’t doing what they were supposed to do.
“They didn’t come out ready to practice,” Giles said. “They were hoping they were doing the right thing instead of knowing they were doing the right thing.”
Giles is in the ninth season of his second stint as the coach at Escalante. During that tenure, the Lobos have won three state football championships and have consistently been in the state football playoffs. Escalante has established itself as one of the best football programs in this part of New Mexico, regardless of size. In recent years, the Lobos have added much bigger schools to their schedule like Espanola Valley High School, Pojoaque Valley High School and Santa Fe High School to its pre-district schedule and have yet to lose to them. His record speaks for itself. When Giles talks, his team listens.
“It all starts here at practice,” junior running back Dante Salazar said. “We can’t have an off-day like we had today.”
Salazar said last year he played at 155 pounds and this year weighs 183 pounds, yet still retains the speed that has earned him medals at the state track and field meet. A season-ending 63-12 loss to Estancia High School in the quarterfinals of the Class 2A state football playoffs was motivation enough for Salazar to bulk up.
“It motivated us as a team to hit the weight room harder,” he said. “We don’t like losing like that.”
Junior Brendon Giles, the coach’s son, takes over at quarterback. Being the coach’s son has advantages and disadvantages.
“He’s always there to guide me,” Brendon Giles said. “Always there if I have questions. When we’re lazy like we were today, it carries over to the house.”
The Lobos have made some changes to their option offense. Quarterback Giles said the offense will be about 60- percent running and 40 percent passing. There are now two running backs instead of just one. Isaac Archuleta will line up at the other running back position with Giles and Salazar in the backfield. Most of the plays on offense will be run from a shotgun formation to limit the fumbles that plagued the Lobos last season.
“We’re a really tight group,” Brendon Giles said. “We’re a really small town and we’ve been through a lot of things together.”
This year, the Lobos’ backfield will be running behind a beefy line that’s anchored in the middle by junior guards James Garcia and Andres Salazar. Senior Cory Gallegos snaps the ball at center. Garcia weighs in at 269 pounds while Salazar tips the scale at 290 pounds. Gallegos is a mobile 200 pounds.
“They’re big dudes, strong and smart,” Brendon Giles said. “They’ve been protecting me since the eighth grade. At all 11 spots, we’ve got a good dude.”
Their size is something that Escalante doesn’t always have. Better known for its scrappy 130-pound linebackers and 150-pound defensive linemen, the Lobos try to take advantage of their quickness on defense. Junior middle linebacker Matias Lujan, who calls the plays on defense and senior outside linebacker Wyatt Horan will be filling those roles. More than once, bigger teams have looked down on the Lobos because of their smaller size before the game only to be walking off the field with their heads down after another Escalante victory.
“All 11 coming to the ball,” Horan said. “We have got to be focused. Play more as a team.”
One of the biggest changes for Escalante will be their schedule. Initially, the Lobos’ District 1/5-2A had five teams. With McCurdy Charter School, Questa High School and Mission Achievement and Success School now gone from the district this season due to schools dropping their football program or opting to compete in 8-man football, only Newcomb High School remains to challenge the Lobos for the district title.
That may work to Escalante’s advantage. Last season, Escalante finished the regular season defeating its last seven opponents by a combined score of 304-37, including a 2-0 forfeit. To replace the three lost district games, Giles was able to schedule some stronger opponents from bigger schools to finish the regular season.
“From a competition standpoint, we’re adding some quality opponents,” Coach Giles said. “That’s going to be a huge factor going into the playoffs. We were finishing the (regular) season facing teams that were not going to be in the (state) playoffs. We’re not going to have that this year. We’ll be ready for the playoffs.”
Coach Giles is optimistic heading into the 2019 season.
The Lobos opened up their season with a strong win on the road last Friday with a convincing win over the Tucumcari Rattlers, 40-14. Next up for the Lobos is their home opener tomorrow night in Tierra Amarilla as they host the Bloomfield Bobcats in a non-conference matchup. Kickoff time is scheduled for 7:00pm.