Year of the Tiger 2018

Growing pains, growth spurts, a crown

In four years, Coach Art Abreu Jr. delivered a state title to Taos, the fruition of a specific strategy

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Of all the foes the Taos Tigers have had to contend with throughout history, it seems strange that our football team considers the Las Vegas Robertson Cardinals a “rival” team.

After all, we have rarely beaten the Cardinals on the ol’ gridiron, so it begs the question as to why so many Taos fans think we are in a legitimate rivalry with such a storied program. This lopsided clash resembles the current quarrel between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots: there’s plenty of mutual disdain, but the Patriots regularly pummel the Jets.

But searching for the roots of the Taos versus Robertson rivalry is best left to other writers. The last thing I want to do with this commentary is poke a bear with a stick – be it awake or asleep – just to make a point about rivalry.

This is, however, where the story of a school and town longing for a blue trophy begins and where the first steps of an historic journey were taken.

The plan

At the end of the 2014 season, Coach Flavio Lopez – who accrued a 21-13 overall record (.618 win percentage) in three seasons at the helm for the Tigers - resigned his position. In the search for a new head football coach, Taos High School athletic director Nickie McCarty was contemplating how to get over the red hump (Taos had once again lost to Robertson 48-21 in the secondto- last game of the 2014 season) and bring a state championship to Tiger Nation.

Her own “fight-fire-with-fire” quest led to a rookie coach who had family ties in Taos and was a graduate and former football player from Robertson. Thus began the Art Abreu Jr. era in Taos.

Strong bodies

From the very beginning, it was evident that athletes were drawn to Coach Abreu. He once stated that the minute he stepped onto the Taos High campus, several young athletes began following him around and were interested in talking about football even though it wasn’t close to football season.

“I knew immediately these kids had a strong desire to win,” said Abreu, referring to previous seniors.

“That made me feel so welcome, and I could not wait to get on the field with these guys.”

When the first summer workouts began, Abreu had a unique challenge and a problem many coaches would love to have—too many players. Anaya Field was suddenly overflowing with boys clad in orange and black. About half were juniors and seniors, but the second half included a strong freshman class eager to keep winning as they did as a Taos Middle School team.

From day one, Abreu issued a warning about the looming workload and the hours, days, weeks and months they would have to devote to the program. His coaching style demanded more than these players had ever given.

Hot summer days, cold autumn nights, early mornings, late nights, two-a-days and Saturday morning conditioning sessions were all part of the readiness plan. Such rigorous demands whittled down the numbers.

Many of those freshmen toughed it out, though, and were instrumental in the ultimate triumph that gave the community its first state football title on Dec. 1.

When the players were not out in the elements, they were inside lifting weights. The steamy rectangular room became an incubator of sorts, turning arms and legs into bulging limbs, boys into men, football players into champions. The results were not immediate in 2015, but that persistence, work ethic and commitment could have been the reason the Tigers stopped the Bloomfield Bobcats in that pivotal goal line stand in the waning moments of the title game.

Strong minds

Along with the physical demands, motivational speeches have been a vital ingredient in the champions’ feast served throughout Abreu’s tenure.

For four years players have heard the rallying calls from their leader. Gathered on one knee in a horseshoe formation after a game or practice, Abreu gave his players volumes of information and a regular dose of daily affirmations and fireworks.

“Appreciate this time you have together, work hard, carry yourselves with class, work hard, keep up your grades, work hard,” bellowed Abreu, using effective pauses, variations in volume and facial expressions. “Work hard, gentlemen.”

Professional football players also visited during summer camps and offered nuggets of information.. George Teague, a former Dallas Cowboy famous for defending the team’s star logo from ridicule on national television, spoke several hours about being role models and good people in the community.

His sage words seemed to resonate with each team, every time he visited. In a soft-spoken way, he encouraged the Tigers to always strive for improvement.

A solid record

In his tenure, Abreu Jr. has amassed a 31-16 overall record (.659 win percentage) amounting to a meteoric rise which seldom occurs so quickly at the high school level. This recent 12-win season saw triumphs over nearly all of Taos’ rivals as the Tigers posted big victories over St Michael’s, Española Valley, Portales and Bloomfield. Aside from the solitary loss to St. Pius (Albuquerque) this year, the only two teams who own series leads over Abreu’s teams are Ruidoso and Robertson.

Abreu Jr. registered his first win as a head coach in Taos’ season and home opener at home against the Bernalillo Spartans in a non-conference game on August 28, 2015. His tenth win came in his second year when his team beat the Pojoaque Valley Elks in a District 2-4A matchup October 28, 2016. Both of these benchmark games were shutouts with the Tigers claiming easy victories over the two class 4A division opponents. Then, in Taos’ district opener against the Grants Pirates this past season, Abreu and company notched a razor-thin 20-19 win, - maintaining a perfect record to start the 2018 season.

When it comes to the losses Abreu has endured in the past four years, all but two teams have been avenged. In his first year—the one that yielded the most losses (six)—the Tigers were beat by Hope Christian (Albuquerque), Bloomfield (twice), St. Michael’s (Santa Fe), Española Valley and Robertson.

His second season saw his team lose to Hatch Valley, Hope Christian, St. Michael’s, Robertson and Ruidoso.

The Tigers’ 2017 campaign endured similar losses to St. Michael’s and Robertson, but a surprise defeat by West Las Vegas was not anticipated. Taos 2017 season ended in the quarterfinals of the Class 4A state tournament at the hands of the Portales Rams in a mid-November game on the road. The Tigers did get even with Hope Christian by beating them once during the regular season and again in the state playoffs. Abreu also redeemed himself with a convincing win over the Hatch Valley Bears in the season opener.

This recent 12-win season saw triumphs over nearly all of Taos’ rivals, the best year for cleaning the slate as the Tigers posted big victories over St Michael’s, Española Valley, Portales and Bloomfield. Aside from the solitary loss to St. Pius (Albuquerque) this year, the only two teams who own series leads over Abreu’s teams are Ruidoso and Robertson.

Football family

Almost everyone I’ve spoken with has a different theory about Taos’ fortune, but, fans universally acknowledge the accelerated growth of this team and the simple pleasure of seeing the transformation firsthand.

I, too, offer congratulations and kudos. But the one overriding theme that has emerged is the humility that this organization has displayed.

“This has been a complete team effort,” said McCarty, responding to questions about her decision to hire Abreu four years ago. “Sure, the strategy to bring the Abreus to Taos was part of this (state championship), but we all did our part.”

This has been the most refreshing part of this journey: humble champions who know “it takes a village.”

But we still have to get those Robertson Cardinals!

Poke!

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