Late TDs lifts Cats to victory

Morris Sharp celebrates after scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s New Mexico Premier League playoff game at Leon Williams Stadium. Sharp fell on a loose ball on the kickoff with 5:27 left to seal the Curry County Cats’ 13-6 win.

Kevin Wilson

Morris Sharp wasn’t sure what his opportunity was going to be. But he took it, and the Curry County Cats are moving on in the playoffs.

On the kickoff following the game-tying score, Sharp landed on a misplayed kickoff in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown, and the Cats scored a 13-6 win Saturday over the Las Cruces Kings in the first round of the New Mexico Premier League playoffs at Leon Williams Stadium.

The Cats (7-2) move on to the Pecos Division championship against the Albuquerque Titans next week. Cats coach Paul Lopez said there is not a set time or field as yet for the road contest.

It was a night of defensive domination and offensive shortcomings, for both teams. Only two offensive plays got inside the opposing 20 all night:

• A 38-yard scoring flip from John Props to Manuel Robles, who reversed field and lost a trio of Kings defenders on a sideline-to-sideline sprint with 5:27 left, and

• Props’ 6-yard keeper to the 17 in the final 40 seconds before the Cats (7-2) let the remaining time tick away without breaking huddle.

With just seven minutes to play, it looked like the Kings (5-4) would sneak out of town with only a defensive touchdown — a 43-yard interception return by Steven Thomas with 1:26 left in the second quarter — necessary to win.

The Cats defense was “lights out,” Lopez said, as it forced four second-half turnovers, including two Josh Bryan interceptions and a Mike Thomas fumble recovery that set up Robles’ game-tying score.

“It’s a big relief,” said Thomas, a Clovis native and former University of Utah defensive tackle who spent much of the night in the Kings’ backfield. “Our offense struggled at times, but when it came time for them to show up, they came through.”

With the game tied 6-6, special teams came through. Las Cruces’ kick return team tried to let the kickoff roll out of bounds in the end zone — which would have meant starting the drive at the 35 on a penalty instead of the 20 via touchback.

But Sharp had other plans, even though he wasn’t sure how semipro rules came into play.

“When I was coming down the field,” Sharp said, “I wondered if it would be a safety if I hit him when he picked it up, and he never picked it up.”

Kings coach David Lopez said the breaks just weren’t there for his squad.

“I’ve never seen anything like that, ever,” said Lopez, an Onate graduate who played strong safety at Air Force from 2003 to 2006, “and I’ve been coaching football for a while and played football all of my life.”

Lopez felt lucky to get out of the game with a win, and said it’s a challenge to be ready when everybody has a fulltime job and a life outside the gridiron.

“It’s so hard to get into the roll of things,” Lopez said. “The practice we do get is during game time, really.”