KIRTLAND — Changes have rippled through the state's high school athletic landscape, and locally, Kirtland Central may be the most affected.
The New Mexico Activities Association reclassified for the 2014-2015 school year. Rather than following long-time district rivals Aztec, Farmington and Piedra Vista to 5A, the Broncos were held at the 4A level, joining an unfamiliar district.
But even though the Broncos and their former district rivals are now in different classes, football fans will still witness the gridiron rivalries they've followed for years when Kirtland Central plays all three of the now 5A schools — plus Los Alamos — before meeting its new district members in the second half of the season.
"It's sad that we're not all in the same district, but the fact that we still have them on the schedule to keep that rivalry alive is really good," said Broncos defensive tackle Isaac Decker. "We don't get the same bragging rights that we used to, but it's a good challenge for us."
The Broncos are also looking at potential wins against Aztec, Farmington and PV to boost the team's seeding in the playoffs.
"We'll have to prove ourselves in the first half of the season. We need to treat those games like we have in the past years, treat them like they're district games," said junior running back Keishaun Aspaas, who recorded more than 1,000 all-purpose yards last season. "We have five non-district games, so hopefully we come out with a minimum of three wins. If we can beat a few 5A teams and we end up making it to state, having those wins against 5A teams should give us a higher seed."
While the Broncos hope the first half of the schedule sets the tone for the season, head coach Kevin Graham is excited to get into the district schedule and see new competition.
"We're excited about being in the new district because there are new teams to play. It's a new challenge, and it's going to be a challenge for sure," said Graham, who is entering his third season at KCHS. "We've got a tough road ahead of us, but we're looking forward to it."
Kirtland Central will rely on its defense — which returns its top two tacklers from last season in Decker and linebacker Jacob Belin, both of whom were named captains for the season — and a number of two-way starters to dictate the game while the Broncos' run-based offense eats up the clock.
"We really emphasize that if they're going to get some rest, it's going to be on offense, because they're going to be on the field on defense pretty much all night," Graham said.
The Broncos' backfield will feature a timeshare between Aspaas, Belin and Bryceson Arthur, all starters on the defensive side of the ball. The players welcome the idea of splitting time.
"That's the good thing about having depth," Aspaas said. "We'll all three share time and help each other out. I don't think any of us are worried about individual stats. We just want to do what it takes to be successful and win games."
In their quest for non-district wins and a playoff appearance, some of the players aren't looking far to pick up lessons on reaching those goals.
"We need to come together," Decker said. "Farmington did a good job last year. They didn't get complacent. You could see that they knew in the back of their mind that they had to win the next one and the next one. You could see them improve every week, and that's what we need to do this year."