In Las Vegas, N.M., no love lost for St. Michael’s
On the surface, Adrian Gonzales treated last week’s preparation for West Las Vegas’ District 2-3A football game against St. Michael’s like a normal week.
Except, it’s not a normal week whenever St. Michael’s is on the schedule for the town of Las Vegas, N.M. Gonzales, the fourth-year head coach at West Las Vegas, saw the focus the Dons had all through four days of practice, but he also didn’t hesitate to leave a few subtle message to underscore what was at stake for his program.
“We just left a bunch of messages all through the field house about other seasons of what had been,” said Gonzales, a 2000 West Las Vegas graduate.
The one message that wasn’t so subtle was written on the door to the Dons’ locker room. It had the scores of the last three games between the two schools — all Horsemen wins — with the note “Property of the Horsemen” written on the bottom of the door.
West Las Vegas went on to beat the Horsemen, 14-13, for the program’s first win over its Santa Fe rival in 15 years.
When it comes to the long-standing rivalry between the city of Las Vegas — whether the colors are the red, black and white of Robertson, or the gold and green of West Las Vegas — and St. Michael’s, there is little love lost.
Oh, there is respect, but little love.
“For the longest time, [the Horsemen] have been the standard of the district,” former West Las Vegas athletic director Richard Tripp said. “They hold the most district champions in just about every sport. There is always something about that prestige that St. Mike’s has.”
St. Michael’s head coach Joey Fernandez, who played for the school in the mid-1980s and has guided the program since 2002, said the Las Vegas schools always had a healthy disdain for the Horsemen because of the perception of the private school.
“It was something you grew up with — that we know we’re better because we’re the rich school, which we’re really not,” Fernandez said. “So, they were always out to beat us, but it was a fun rivalry.”
The intensity level permeates through each school year and involves just about every sport since the three are district rivals and they all harbor dreams of district titles along with state championships.
But football sets the tone.
This year provides a new sensation as all three are battling for the 2-3A title, and the three biggest games come in the final three weeks of the season. On Saturday, Robertson travels to Christian Brothers Athletic Complex to take on the Horsemen.
Horsemen defensive coordinator Joey Butler saw many of those contests growing up since his dad, Joe Butler, was the athletic director through the 1980s and 1990s. He got a chance to play in those games from 2001-02, and remembers what the atmosphere was like, especially against Robertson.
“Playing at either place was surreal,” coach Butler said. “At Robertson, you walk from the locker room to in between the stands with everyone yelling at you.”
Fernandez remembers the 2003 game against West Las Vegas in which the Dons upset the undefeated Horsemen 40-25 to take the 2-3A title. Fernandez felt the loss was a big reason
St. Michael’s won the state title that year — its first in 31 years.
“They were loaded with talent,” Fernandez said. “We knew after that we had to work hard on a lot of stuff and get things going in order to win a state championship. Losing that game helped us more than if we had won that game.”
That year proved to be a pivotal moment in the rivalry. Until then, those games held mostly district significance because the power schools resided in the south. In 2003, the landscape changed in Class 3A (and later 4A until returning to 3A this year).
St. Michael’s and Robertson grew to be state powers, combining for six state titles since the Horsemen won in 2003. The Dons, meanwhile, struggled in the shadow of those two programs before Gonzales took over in 2014 and helped rebuild.
Robertson head coach Leroy Gonzalez, who moved to Las Vegas from San Antonio, Texas, in the late 1990s and began coaching at Robertson in 2001, was taken aback the first time he saw the atmosphere surrounding a Cardinals-Horsemen game.
“St. Michael’s was starting to become a part of the upper echelon of 3A, and [the atmosphere] was like that for a while when I got there,” Gonzalez said. “Now, I contribute to that, but it’s how it is.”
The Las Vegas-St. Michael’s rivalry resided chiefly with the Cardinals and Horsemen. Since 2004, one of those two programs have been crowned 2-3A champion every year except for two (Raton in 2009, Taos in 2013). St. Michael’s was out of the district from 2010-15.
In 2007, Robertson and
St. Michael’s played for the 3A title with the Horsemen winning 27-6 to stop the Cardinals from a three-peat. When Robertson won its third state title in 2013, it avenged a 50-0 loss to top-seeded St. Michael’s earlier in the year with a 22-13 win in the quarterfinals.
“It’s going to be a fistfight,” Gonzalez said. “Not a literal one, but the intensity level is where you’re going toe-to-toe. Give me your best shot, and I am going to give you mine. For the most part, we’ve been a little lucky the past six or seven years in the rivalry.”
West Las Vegas, though, is starting to make some noise. Last week’s win over St. Michael’s was the Dons’ first since that 2003 season, one filled with bittersweet regret because they lost in the 3A semifinals that year and didn’t return to the playoffs until 2017. Gonzales, who was an assistant coach at Robertson for a decade before taking the Dons’ post, said his struggle was to get his players to believe they could compete with the Cardinals and Horsemen.
“I would say we’ve been a little intimidated until last year,” Gonzales said. “That was when we started breaking the mold against teams like St. Mike’s and Robertson. From a culture standpoint, it has taken us 15 years to get over that. Granted, there wasn’t much continuity in those years. It took a whole lot of mind-molding, I guess you could say.”
Then again, many minds have been molded over the Las Vegas-St. Michael’s rivalry for decades.
And many more will be molded in the decades to come.