Last November, coach Art Abreu Jr. was busy stacking shoulder pads and matte black helmets in one of the portable buildings on the Taos High School campus. The day was relatively warm for late fall and Abreu wore a warm smile, too. He was cordial and calm as he received the clunky plastic and metallic gear from a steady stream of limping and achy players who handed over their share of the stock. After the transfer and a check mark on a sheet of paper held by an old clipboard that was missing three corners, words of closure and small talk officially ended the 2016 football season. Then, with a slight tilt of the head and the sideways purse of coach’s lips, the next few moments were an indication of what was coming next.
A firm handshake and a half-nod accompanied by locked eye contact – it was an unspoken acknowledgement between coach and player, who both knew it was way too soon to be doing this task. It was also the official start of the 2017 football season.
For the second straight year, the Tigers made it to the state playoffs, but were summarily dismissed in the opening round – on the road. Taos finished with a 6-4 overall record, but could only muster a No. 9 seed and had to travel to No. 8 Ruidoso, which had a 5-5 regular-season record. Given the one win advantage and a tougher “strength of schedule” résumé, it was perplexing that the Tigers were the ones making the 315-mile (one way) trip to Southern New Mexico. Nevertheless, a lackluster performance in the second half led to a 63-27 final score and an end to Abreu’s first winning season as a head coach.
In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad showing for Taos, which fielded one of the youngest teams in the state playoff bracket – thrust into the chaos of “train horn” land and southern “fan-demonium” hospitality.
And so, the evident smile on Abreu’s face was just a crocodile smile on this equipment inventory day. Somewhere deep inside the coach was a clock – nay, a timer – that was ticking away one second at a time, counting down to the start of next season. At the time, his vision for the future was so clear and detailed. So was his hunger.
“The countdown will end when I hear the punch of the football on the next kickoff,” said Abreu, alluding to the first game of the 2017 season against the Hatch Valley Bears, who will be traveling to Taos Aug. 25. “In the meantime, we’re going to get ready for that moment.”
Girth and experience
The Tigers are coming into this current season with a full contingent of seniors and juniors for the first time in Abreu’s tenure. “These guys understand the process and are bought in,” said Abreu, who started working with the current crop of seniors during their freshman year when he was hired at the start of 2015. “As soon as I set foot on this campus 2 1/2 years ago, we started implementing the program.”
Senior Jude Suazo was one of those freshmen who has been at Abreu’s side throughout his development as a backup quarterback. Coming into his second full year as the starting play-caller for Taos, he is showing a great deal of maturity – both physically and mentally – and is ready to lead the Tigers with his legs, arm and brain.
“He has committed himself to getting better on all levels,” said Abreu. “He has impressed me and my staff because of what he does to improve himself – without being asked.”
Along with taking snaps, Suazo will also be prowling on the defensive side of the ball as one of the designated cornerbacks.
“I believe in placing the 11 best players on the field, so without a doubt, Suazo will be out there on defense as well,” said Abreu. “With what he has done to prepare for this coming season, he has earned serious respect from the team and myself.”
Suazo will be surrounded by a huge, highly trained and motivated offensive line that will provide the much-needed protection to advance the ball downfield with the Tiger’s air assault. A staple in the playbook last year, the occasional bombs from Suazo to a wide array of receivers, tight ends and backs turned out to be quite effective – adding excitement for Taos fans.
“Except for Johnny, the ‘O’ line and the ‘D’ line hasn’t changed much,” said Abreu, who was talking about Johnny Montaño, who graduated last May and was an anchor for both lines last year. “So, along with a massive front line, who brings a new level of physical to our team, these guys are also quite experienced in their respective positions.”
Taos’ running game is also poised to make some noise with the return of Johnathan Garcia, Adam Vigil, Justin Good and others who will work to fill the void of the loss of Ryan McCarty – who, along with Montaño – graduated this past spring. McCarty’s multifaceted game allowed him to make several catches out of the backfield, and Good and Garcia may have the right combination of running and catching skills to gobble up positive yards as utility players themselves.
The first test
The Tigers will be in action against the Capital Jaguars when they visit Anaya Stadium for the annual exhibition game between the two big cat teams Aug. 18.
“This will be our first test,” said Art Abreu Sr., who wasn’t too pleased with the efforts of his line during last year’s team against the bigger school from Santa Fe. “We weren’t focused, and we got pushed around. I hope we learned something from last year and come ready to go on the first play.”
“We remind ourselves repeatedly about how close we are to getting to the next level and beyond,” said Abreu. “Those close losses to Hope [Christian] and [St.] Mike’s last year are still fresh on our minds. It’s those bitter moments and that taste of defeat has drives us every day.”
As the Tigers wrapped up their first week of practice in full pads, the Tigers looked hungry. Coach Abreu was smiling.
The home opener versus Hatch Valley slated for Aug. 25 will begin at 7 p.m. Fans are asked to wear all black for the first “blackout’” game of the season. Gates to Anaya Stadium will open at 5 p.m.