His efforts are a big reason the undefeated Horsemen (12-0) will host Silver in next Saturday’s state title game. A time and location will be announced Sunday.
Following his team’s grinding 18-7 win over Lovington on an unseasonably warm December afternoon, Horsemen head coach Joey Fernandez implored his team to finish the season with the best week of practice it has had all year.
To that end, he singled out seldom-used sophomore Nathanyel Leyba for taking the lead in scout team preparations.
Last week, the 150-pound junior varsity floater doubled as Lovington running back Justin Bromley in practice, taking a continuous pounding from the first-team St. Michael’s defense.
In the coming days he’ll assume the role of one of Silver’s top running backs while trying to simulate the Colts’ offense.
“I’d rather be on the field, yeah, but if this is my way to help the older guys get ready, then I’ll do whatever it takes,” Leyba said. “Some day a younger guy will be doing the same for me.”
Leyba’s skills as a Bromley stand-in paid off as the Wildcats senior was held to 33 yards rushing on 11 carries. He also fumbled on his first attempt and had seven of his carries go for three or fewer yards as Lovington’s quest for a four-peat officially came to an end.
All in all, just another day at the office for a suffocating Horsemen defense that has been doing things like that all season.
Lovington (5-7) managed just 152 yards and averaged just over two yards per rushing attempt.
The Wildcats’ only touchdown came on its most impressive drive of the game, a 63-yard march midway through the third quarter to cut what had been a 15-0 Horsemen lead nearly in half.
That was all Lovington would get, however. In the second quarter, St. Michael’s got a 4-yard touchdown run from Salomon Martinez and a 21-yard scoring pass from Cory Serna to Daniel Ortega to build a double-digit halftime lead.
After Bromley found the end zone on a 1-yard run, Horsemen senior Santo Coppola essentially iced it when he nailed a 51-yard field goal with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter.
It turned out to be the biggest gamble of the game. Twice before the St. Michael’s offense drove well inside Coppola’s range but elected to go for it on fourth down.
Each time it failed, the last coming with six minutes remaining and the Horsemen perched at the Wildcats’ 4 — basically an extra point for the strong-legged Coppola.
When the opportunity came again, Fernandez didn’t hesitate.
Worst-case scenario, he said, was a miss that would have forced Lovington to start at its own 20 and needing a sustained drive against his defense.
“The coaches have confidence in the defense, and they should,” said Ortega, a starting linebacker. “We’re a physical team and we know we can stop anyone. Even if the other team has the ball in a bad spot we know we can get it done.”
Ortega was something of the mystery man in Saturday’s game. Wearing his usual No. 8 game jersey in the first half, he switched to No. 32 in the second after an opponent tore his original game top.
It took a while for fans to figure out that it wasn’t sophomore Christian Romero running the ball eight times for 65 yards in the second half; it was actually Ortega.
Before his switch, he was a central figure in a 98-yard drive that capped the scoring in the first half.
Unlike the usual Air Fernandez offense that features plenty of deep drops and balls chucked down field, this march started with 10 running plays and ended with the 21-yard pass that produced six points.
“I wasn’t throwing the ball well, but you saw right there that we’re more than a passing team,” Serna said.
The Horsemen had 316 yards of total offense.
Serna passed for 136 yards and was intercepted once while Ortega had 97 rushing and Martinez 54.