By Ryan Lengerich
After winning a home game, it seems football players are quick to thank their fans — and they should.
Sometimes the thought of home advantage is enough.
“Everyone knows were tough to beat at home,” Tucumcari senior A.J. Molinas told me prior to the Tularosa playoff game at Rattler Stadium.
Yet high school athletes’ most treasured game, the state championship, is played in one team’s back yard.
Here’s how it works:
In New Mexico, the site for a state championship football game at all class levels are decided by coin flip or by history. If the two teams met in the playoffs in a past year, the game is played at the site not used in the previous meeting.
Therefore, if Tucumcari meets Santa Rosa in the 2004 Class 2A final, the Rattlers will be forced to travel 60 miles down Interstate 40 because the Rattlers won the 2002 state championship coin flip.
Next to allowing aluminum rocket launchers in college baseball, this is currently the most absurd process for any sport regulation. It deprives the visiting team of fair play and stripps athletes statewide of the chance to maximize their greatest sports memory.
In my home state of Ohio, the Division 1 state championship game is played at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Today, Don Bosco Prep of Ramsey, N.J. will meet Bergen Catholic in a New Jersey state final at Giants Stadium, in East Rutherford.
Imagine that picture, Dad — your son storming the field from the same tunnel as New York Giant Michael Strahan does on Sundays.
So why not hold the New Mexico state finals at the centrally located University Stadium at UNM in Albuquerque? According to Robert Zayas of the New Mexico Activities Association, the reason championships are played at high schools is because, “That is how it has always been.”
Not very convincing.
Zayas said the NMAA, which makes 75 percent of its money by gate sales, can get more people to a high school. The home team, he said, will carry the load and visiting fans ice the cake. “It cost way to much money to rent out the stadium at UNM to accommodate 1,000 fans,” Zayas said.
The NMAA is wrong for at least three reasons. First, the fans will follow their teams. Second, meeting in big cities such as Albuquerque gives borderline fans something to do other than watching a game. Third, the casual fan may make the trip just to see a game at a major college for $6 – $10.
Holding multiple games on a single day is another option. The NMAA could rent a campus stadium and host the Class 1A at noon and 2A at 4 p.m. and so on. Everyone gets two or more games for the price of one. Perhaps all five classes could be held over a weekend.
If the NMAA still cries financial wolf, then play the game at a neutral high school. Perhaps the Class 2A championship should rotate each year from a neutral high school in Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The key is determining the sight prior to the season so not to show any team a bias. This also allows fans to book hotels and make travel plans well before their team may play.
Rattlers head coach Dub Smith said the issue has been discussed and coaches prefer the status quo. After all, they have a 50 percent chance of courting a championship. “I feel like no mater where you play, you still have a 100-yard field,” Smith said, though he admitted playing at a major university thrills players and fans alike. “It would be a treat for the fans but I doubt very seriously if it will change.”
And that is unfortunate.
State championships will continue to be played with the winner potentially receiving an asterisk along with the title. The NMAA can take simple steps to eliminate artificial advantage and determine the state’s best football teams. Maybe it could provide a priceless memory for an athlete — a game at a major university.
But that isn’t how it has always been done.
Ryan Lengerich is the QCS Managing Editor.