Robertson-St. Michael's rivalry intensifies on gridiron

·8 min read

Nov. 27—It was just a scrimmage at a football seven-on-seven passing camp, but the Las Vegas Robertson Cardinals acted like they just won the Class 3A title.

When the Cardinals beat the St. Michael's Horsemen in the summer of 2006 in what was supposed to be a meaningless passing competition designed to get teams better for the upcoming season, the celebration of the players and coaches belied the ever-percolating intensity that underscores the Robertson-St. Michael's rivalry.

After the win, then-Cardinals head coach Chad Roanhaus pointed that out succinctly.

"They don't like us, and we don't like them," Roanhaus said.

The rivalry between the two high schools has been embedded ever since the two became district rivals in the 1940s when Robertson was known as Las Vegas High School. It permeates through every sport and every season, regardless of the cast of characters associated with both sides.

But the rivalry might be at its fiercest on the gridiron, especially as the two programs have grown in stature as the gold standard in 3A. Writing the latest chapter in the Cardinals-Horsemen feud commences at 1 p.m. Saturday when the fourth-seeded Horsemen travel to No. 3 Robertson's Cardinal Field for the Class 3A championship game.

This is the second time the two programs play for the title, with the Horsemen stopping the Cardinals' try for a three-peat with a 27-6 win in 2007 at Ivan Head Stadium. The teams' imprint on the 3A record book over the last 20 years is vast.

Since the advent of five classes in 2000 — which later led to the current six classification system — St. Michael's and Robertson have combined for 16 state title appearances and six championships. However, since the two programs won back-to-back titles in 2012 (the Horsemen) and 2013 (the Cardinals), neither has hoisted the blue trophy, even though Robertson has played in five of the last six championship games in the past seven years.

Robertson offensive coordinator Lucas Sanchez, who quarterbacked the Cardinals from 2003-05, said there is a healthy dose of dislike but respect for each other because they know they are both playing for the same thing — to reign supreme, whether it's for the District 2-3A or the state title.

"In that sense, you don't like each other," Sanchez said. "You know they're going to come with their best, and we're going to come with our best. That's what makes it so intense, and the anticipation just builds up."

The build-up for every game has intensified over the past 20 years since St. Michael's and Robertson are the two premier programs in 3A. While current and former Robertson players and coaches say their biggest rival is crosstown school West Las Vegas, they admit the Horsemen are a very close second. It's clear when the Cardinals and Horsemen take the field — it resembles an organized brawl, filled with big hits, big plays and even bigger stakes.

Martinez got a taste of that in his first rivalry game in 2000. St. Michael's had recently returned to the district from a two-year stint in 2A and traveled to Robertson in the second week of the 2-3A season. He said walking through the opening that separates the home-side metal stands with Cardinals fans leaning over the railing yelling at the Horsemen was an eye-opening experience.

It was the prelude for what came over the next 48 minutes, then the next 20-plus years.

"You know it's going to be a street fight inside a telephone booth," said Santa Fe High head coach Andrew Martinez, who was a St. Michael's assistant from 2000-16. "It's one of those 15-round heavyweight fights where you know every time those two teams play each other what's going to happen."

Kyle Henderson, a Horsemen receiver from 1999-2002, said the smack of the helmets when the teams lined up for the first play of that game had a distinct sound compared to other games.

"It was a different type of physicality, and that is something Robertson always had," Henderson said.

It was a different sound from the Robertson faithful when the Horsemen won, 18-15 — the first time that happened in 15 years. St. Michael's went on to make its first 3A playoff appearance in 12 years, and has missed the playoffs just once since then.

Taos head coach Art Abreu Jr., who played at Robertson from 1999-2002 under his father, Art Abreu Sr., said the rivalry changed that night.

"That kicked it up a couple of notches," Abreu Jr. Said. "They had made it to the [2A] championship [in 1999], so we knew St. Michael's had a competitive team. We played them in basketball, but not football, so we kinda understood how big and physical they were."

Horsemen head coach and 1989 St. Michael's graduate Joey Fernandez said the rivalry was always big, but mainly in basketball.

Even during his time playing football for the Horsemen, he never experienced beating the Cardinals. That didn't mean playing Robertson didn't matter.

"Football wasn't as big because both programs weren't as successful as they are right now at the same time," Fernandez said. "But it was still a pretty intense rivalry every time you stepped on the field with Robertson."

Fernandez played a role in the changing nature of the rivalry. He was the Horsemen's offensive coordinator in 2000 and became the head coach in 2002. Robertson started to become a 3A force when it made its first 3A championship appearance in 2001. The Horsemen won the 3A title in 2003. Robertson won the title two years later and repeated in 2006 before losing to St. Michael's the following year.

The Cardinals also went through a coaching change in 2003, when Abreu resigned before that season and Chad Roanhaus took over. The son of legendary Clovis head coach Eric Roanhaus, Chad put his own stamp on the program, combining an opportunistic offense with a stout defense piloted by current head coach Leroy Gonzalez.

Martinez said preparing for a Roanhaus-led offense was challenging because he always threw wrinkles into the game plan that opponents weren't expecting — much like Fernandez and his offense.

"You knew Chad was always going to get you if you weren't prepared for everything," Martinez said. "You burn through every single play, all of the film, and you better not take a minute off. He was going to take a play from Week One for the state championship or the semifinals. If you weren't ready for that, you were going to get a little bit embarrassed by that."

Robertson hit a short blip in the late 2000s before Gonzalez took over as head coach in 2010, and had the program back at the top by 2013. In the process, the Cardinals, the ninth seed that year, beat an undefeated and No. 1 Horsemen squad trying to defend their title, in the quarterfinals. The win also avenged a 50-0 loss to St. Michael's that year.

In fact, the last two times the teams have played in the postseason have gone Robertson's way. In 2018, the Cardinals overcame a 27-13 deficit in the final 4 minutes of a 3A quarterfinal to win 28-27. They went for the 2-point conversion and the win instead of a point-after kick to set up overtime.

The win fueled a fourth straight appearance to the 3A championship game for Robertson, but it also led to a fourth straight loss when Dexter beat the Cardinals, 22-12.

After beating Socorro in a 3A semifinal last week, Gonzalez said he was excited to play the Horsemen for the title but hoped he could finally pull off a second state title.

"I'm happy to be there, but do I lose five in a row?" Gonzalez said.

Sanchez and Fernandez said they like playing Robertson because there is no need for big speeches or motivational tools. It's a week of focused, intense practices — and none are bigger than Saturday's showdown.

"When our kids hear [Robertson's name], they get excited because it's going to be a big game," Fernandez said. "I love it. That is the environment we want to be in. I've always liked walking into that stadium."

Whether he walks out of Cardinals Field equally happy remains to be seen.

Class 3A championship What: No. 4 St. Michael's (9-3) at No. 3 Las Vegas Robertson (10-2) When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Cardinal Field in Las Vegas, N.M. Tickets: Adults — $10; students/seniors/military — $5. All ticket sales are online only and can be purchased at gofan.co/app/school/NMAA. There will be no walk-up sales. Radio/online: KVSF 810 AM; ESPN Santa Fe 1400 AM/93.7 FM; NFHSNetwork.com

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