Photo: Tony Venegas/TexasHSFootball

LAS CRUCES, NM — The winds are shifting are New Mexico State University and it’s not just the weather.

After decades of struggles both financially and on the field, the Aggies returned to a bowl game in 2017 and ended the nation’s longest bowl drought of 57 years by defeating Utah State 26-20 in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl in Tucson on Dec. 29.

It was a program-changing win long sought by Head Coach Doug Martin and his players and the party hasn’t stopped. Fans, players and community members of Las Cruces gathered downtown on a picturesque Saturday afternoon to celebrate the Aggies victory.

A banner celebrating the New Mexico State bowl victory hangs in Plaza de Las Cruces during the bowl celebration on Saturday. Tony Venegas/TexasHSFootball

“This has been incredible,” Martin exclaimed after the ceremony ended. “The outpouring of fan support from the last two games and this today has been unreal. To see the pride that everyone has in the football program is very gratifying and it’s great to be able to thank these fans for what they’ve done for us.”

The celebration capped off what has been a whirlwind last month for the Aggie football program. It was something the players present were still soaking in.

“It’s great to see the community come together like this,” sophomore running back Jason Huntley said. “From the students, other athletes and everyone else.”

“It’s a blessing just to be here,” sophomore safety Shamad Lomax added. “It’s something that we’ve talked about for a long time and it’s great to see the fans come out and support us.”

New Mexico State RB Jason Huntley. Nelson Chenault/USA Today Sports

Both players each made their mark within the world of Texas high school football world: Huntley at Arlington Martin and Lomax at Copperas Cover. That said, neither one had anticipated the kind of atmosphere their team played in on December 29, where a reported 20,000-plus New Mexico State fans made the trip to Tucson.

“I remember warming up at the game and there were just a few fans to start,” Huntley recalled of his pregame routine. “But, to come back and see everyone there was awesome. Everyone knows how big Texas high school football is, but it was a dream come true to play in an environment like that.”

Even after the game was played, the attention surrounding the program was felt when players returned home.

“I went back home after the bowl game and everyone was excited for me and told me they watched the game on TV,” Lomax said of his trip back to Copperas Cove. “I remember driving home and stopping at a gas station and they saw my NMSU shirt and said that they saw our team on SportsCenter and all that. It was great to get that recognition.”

New Mexico State S Shamad Lomax. Tony Venegas/TexasHSFootball

Lomax and Huntley played pivotal roles in the historic 2017. Huntley played behind former Fairfield star Larry Rose at running back and had a game-changing 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the bowl game. Meanwhile, Lomax became a consistent force in the secondary, finishing with 71 tackles, seven passes defended, four interceptions and three fumble recoveries.

They’ll each be back for the Aggies in 2018, where they will start their new journey as an independent program after leaving the Sun Belt.

“Like Coach Martin said, we killed Old Man Can’t,” Huntley said of the team’s outlook for next season. “It gave everyone a belief and perspective that we can really do it.”

As the Aggies move forward into uncharted territory, the team is confident that the program continue to grow with Texas talent and from all over.

“With a spotlight season like this, it’s really going to help the team,” Lomax said. “It’s going to help us bring in talent not just from Texas but all over. Everyone is going to know about New Mexico State.”

“I think this is going to help us expand our reaches in recruiting by putting us on the map and also going to help our university,” Martin added. “A rising tide lifts all boats and right now we’re that tide and I hope that continues to lift our university and our city.”

Tony Venegas is an assistant editor with TexasHSFootball, covering prep football in the El Paso region and collegiate and professional football throughout the state. Follow him on Twitter,@advenegas, and read more of his content here.

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