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Pre-season football: La Cueva pass combination enjoys a spectacular season

La Cueva’s Ian Sanchez (left) makes a catch in front of Farmington’s Alex Serrano during playoff action November 11 at Wilson Stadium. (Mike Sandoval/For the diary)

There is a line that runs through the football relationship between Aidan Armenta and Ian Sanchez, a line that began over a decade ago and which ends at Wilson Stadium on Saturday.

This line goes back to their days as little boys in the neighborhood, to their Saturday mornings in YAFL uniforms, and later to the summer days of 7 on 7s.

“Brothers,” said La Cueva football coach Brandon Back of his prolific and often unstoppable duo of quarterback and slot receiver.

Arguably there hasn’t been a more electric or effective QB/receiver combination this season in New Mexico than Armenta and Sanchez.

Armenta is the senior quarterback who will soon be signing with the University of New Mexico. Sanchez is his childhood friend, Armenta’s favorite target, and a touchdown machine for the flying bears.

“If he and I tune in and click,” Sanchez said, “we’re the best in the state.”

These two almost never go together, and their production is one of the key storylines of Saturday’s Class 6A State Championship game between the second-seeded Bears (11-1) and No. 1 Cleveland (10-2) at Wilson Stadium .

“If you have guys that make you look good, it doesn’t make you anxious or nervous,” Armenta said with a smile.

Armenta has thrown 45 touchdown passes; 22 have landed in the hands of Sanchez, who has 92 catches (about 7½ catches per game) for 1,590 yards.

“I’m so comfortable with Ian,” said Armenta, who likens their football relationship to that of the Las Vegas Raiders’ QB Derek Carr and WR Devante Adams (and pals). “I know exactly what he’s going to do.”

The 5-foot-11, 165-pound Sanchez is certainly no ordinary weapon; There was only one game this season in which Sanchez didn’t catch a touchdown pass, and he had multiple TD receptions in half of La Cueva’s 12 games. He scores at a rate usually reserved for high school running backs.

“We knew he had this potential,” Back said, and La Cueva certainly has the most recent pedigree at the receiver position (think Reece Wilkinson, Connor O’Toole, Exodus Ayers) to understand how Sanchez would develop and could. “We’ll hang our hats there.”

Sanchez said he’s only had a few NAIA offers so far, despite his smashing reception numbers. Apparently making Saturday the last time he’ll be catching passes from Armenta in any official capacity.

Exodus Ayers was lined up as a likely No. 1 receiver for the Bears that year after a big junior season, but then Ayers dropped out of a New Hampshire prep school just before the season.

“We relied heavily on X, but I knew I would play a bigger role if he left,” Sanchez said. “I knew I was going to go into 7 on 7s, the way me and Aidan worked together, I knew a big season was coming.”

Back in August, Back said he was confident in his receiving corps and his ability to fill the void in receptions and touchdowns left by Ayers’ departure. That was especially true for Sanchez and Jackson Hix, who has 11 touchdowns himself.

This was even true in the summer of 2021 when Sanchez broke his collarbone, throwing him back for a couple of months. But Back and Armenta said Sanchez has always clearly possessed the qualities of a No. 1 receiver.

It was the remarkable chemistry between Armenta and Sanchez that shaped this La Cueva offense for most of the season. And that goes back to when they were 6 or 7 years old.

“I knew how special he was,” Armenta said. “I knew it would translate to the field pretty easily. (It’s about) trusting him no matter what. I know he’ll be where I want him to be.”

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