For a few years now, those associated with Antelope football have been saying that the excitement in the community about the program has been steadily building.
That excitement level has now reached its peak, as the Rams are in the state playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“I think it’s awesome for the community and the school,” coach Gary Mauldin said. “I think it reaches out to more than just the football program.”
It’s true that the Antelope faithful hasn’t had much to cheer about for the better part of a decade. Outside of the softball team’s five-year streak of state appearances from 2012-16, few Antelope sports teams have even sniffed the postseason.
“It means a lot because it’s been a while since we’ve done anything special,” senior running back/linebacker Sam Martinez said.
Added senior lineman Alex Soto: “This community has really come together. Since last year, people have been talking about us, just really excited for what we’re going to do this year. They’ve really backed us up.”
The Rams nearly qualified for state a year ago, finishing second in the 2A Salt region and No. 20 in the 2A state rankings at 7-3. This year they again went 7-3 and took second in their region, but this time finished high enough in the rankings to secure an at-large bid.
As the No. 12 seed, they have drawn No. 5 Parker as their first-round opponent — which, seemingly, is as good of a draw as they could have hoped for.
That’s because the Rams and Broncs (9-1 overall) already played once this season, and Antelope took a 14-point lead into the fourth quarter of that Sept. 20 game. But Parker rallied, and eventually won in overtime.
“We got our second chance,” senior lineman Mark Rivera said. “We’re all pumped. Not a lot of people can say they get a second chance to right their wrongs.”
Rivera, Soto and Martinez are among the several Rams who have been on varsity for three years, during which time the program has undergone a complete perception change.
From 2010-16, Antelope went just 11-56 and never won more than three games in a season. Mauldin took over in the middle of that stretch — in 2013 — and early on in his tenure, the Rams lost 24 straight games at one point.
That 24-game losing streak came to an end the second-to-last week of the 2016 season, when this year’s seniors were freshmen. The next year, Antelope went 4-5 and the culture started to change.
“Kids just stuck it out through the hard times, and I think that showed other kids to stick it out,” Mauldin said. “(Two) years ago we went 4-5, and we went into Veritas Prep (and lost 28-20 the last game of the season) and could’ve been 5-4. That year, 2017, was probably when it really started coming together. Or even back in 2016 when we won our last two games (to finish 2-8).”
Soto said this year’s 11-man senior class always believed it had what it took to turn the program around.
“Actually Mark (Rivera’s) dad was the one that told me (freshman year), ‘You guys are going to be the class that’s taking us to the state playoffs your senior year.’ That’s stuck with me this whole time; really, to me, I took that as a promise. He coached us since freshman year.
“I believe this is our time now. We have 11 seniors, they’re all strong, we’re all tough.”
Other key members of the senior class include wide receiver/safety Dylan Thomas, who’s the team’s leading tackler, and receiver/cornerback Isaac Filerio, among others. Martinez is the team’s leading rusher with 1,167 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground.
But it’s not just the seniors who have changed the program, as the team’s quarterback (Trey Hohlbein) is a junior and three of the team’s top four tacklers — juniors Xavier Carrillo and William Whitley, and sophomore Jose Soto — are also underclassmen.
Hohlbein has put together a strong campaign, completing 66.1% of his attempts for 2,202 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Mauldin also noted that the program’s participation this year was the highest it’s been in his seven years as coach.
The Rams are now just hoping to extend their storybook season another week.
“We’re ready to go out there and dominate and just show people that we’re not done with this season,” Soto said. “And thank God that we got Parker this week, a little payback action. But I’m just excited and so glad we have the opportunity to play in the playoffs.”