Clovis junior Tanner Fickling tries to get a couple extra yards as he is tackled by Highland junior Jerrell Miller, bottom, and senior Phillip Harrison during the first half of the Class 5A semifinal game Saturday in Clovis.
By Rick White: CNJ managing editor
Clovis is a tough place to play catchup football on a windy afternoon late in November.
Just ask Ian Clark and the Highland Hornets.
Tanner Fickling ran for a pair of touchdowns and a Clovis defense that keeps getting better as the season wears on made it stand up Saturday as the Wildcats advanced to the Class 5A state title game with a 13-0 win over Highland at wind-swept Leon Williams Stadium.
Led by senior defensive end Jason Burns, Clovis (9-3) held Highland to six yards and two first downs in the second half.
The Wildcats (9-3) will take an eight-game winning streak into Saturday’s state-championship game against unbeaten La Cueva, which advanced with a 35-0 win over Las Cruces.
The title game is set for 2 p.m. in Clovis.
“The best defensive team wins this time of the year,” Clovis defensive coordinator Darren Kelley said. “And we’ve done a pretty good job the last couple of weeks.”
The Wildcats have allowed 213 yards and seven points in two playoff games while advancing to the state-title game for the 17th time in 27 years under veteran coach Eric Roanhaus.
La Cueva beat Clovis 40-0 earlier this season, a loss that dropped Clovis to 1-3. The Wildcats haven’t lost since.
“We want another shot at La Cueva,” senior free safety Elliott Hita said. “That loss hurt.”
Clovis had Highland’s standout quarterback Ian Clark running for his life for most of the fourth quarter as the Hornets (9-3) tried to mount a comeback.
It didn’t help that the Hornets were also bucking a 25-mph wind.
“Their defense is really good,” said Clark, who misfired on his last five passes and finished the game 2 of 8 passing for 26 yards. “They kept on blitzing right before the snap. We should have changed the snap count I guess but we were trying to keep things simple.”
Clark was sacked three times in the second half, including being chased out of bounds by Burns and several other Wildcats at his 1-yard line on the Hornets’ final drive of the game that ended with a punt.
“He’s a great athlete,” Burns said of Clark. “A couple of times I got my hands on him but he’s so quick and strong it’s hard to bring him down.”
Kelley said Clovis decided to kick off against the wind to start the second half so the wind would be in the Wildcats’ favor in the fourth quarter.
But the move paid off immediately when Highland fumbled the high kickoff that hung up in the wind and Matt Ulibarri recovered for Clovis at the Hornets’ 26.
Aided by a pass interference on third-and-10 that resulted in an automatic first down, Clovis stretched a 7-0 halftime lead to 13-0 with eight minutes left in the third quarter when Fickling plunged over the goal line from a yard out.
“Both touchdowns came on the same play — 43 counter,” said Fickling, who gained 65 yards on 17 carries and went over the 500-yard mark for the season.”I just saw some air and tried to put my head down and make it into the end zone.”
After averaging 51 yards on three punts for the Hornets with the wind, Phillip Harrison managed just 14.6 yards on three punts against the wind in the fourth quarter, which Highland spent bottled up in its own end.
The wind also allowed the Wildcats secondary to crowd the Highland receivers because Clark couldn’t throw deep against the wind.
“Once we got them throwing into the wind, we started stunting a little more because it’s hard to throw into the wind,” Kelley said.
Highland’s only sustained drive came at the end of the first half when the Hornets reached the Clovis 10 with less than 30 seconds left behind the running of Clark and Channing Fiaseu. But with Highland out of timeouts, Clark was tackled for a short gain while scrambling and the clock ran out before the Hornets could get off another play.
“We were looking for the fade route, but I didn’t have time to find him because they were on me right away,” said Clark, who said he forgot how much time was left.
The Hornets failed to get past the Clovis 45 in the second half.
Highland had won eight of nine games since losing to Clovis 31-7 in Week 3 of the season.
Clovis took a 7-0 lead when Fickling scored from 3 yards out midway through the second quarter. The touchdown capped off a 13-play, 77-yard drive.
While the Hornets held Clovis standout Phillip Williams under 100 yards for the first time in eight games, the Wildcats were able to piece together time-consuming drives even though they didn’t end up with points.
“Our offense did a good job of getting us 4 and 5 yards at a time,” Kelley said. “Sometimes it’s not exciting to the fans but it’s effective because it keeps our defense off the field.”
Williams missed parts of the third and fourth quarter when he had the wind knocked out of him and later his legs cramped.