Oct. 15, 2020

By Greg Selber

Damian Gonzalez was all himself, fired up midway through, hollering at his defense as it trotted off the field.

“We need to make some plays!” he yelled, grousing aloud at the fact that his Cougars had allowed a Brownsville Pace touchdown after the Vikings had converted on third down for three successive sequences.

At another juncture of the night of the first scrimmage of 2020 – completed with all COVID restrictions in place at Richard R. Flores Stadium – the third-year North coach was all smiles about his defense, which stuffed the visitor at the 3-yard line and then forced a missed field goal.

Such were the ups and downs as football returned to Edinburg Thursday night, and given the fact that the official kickoff of the season had provided precious little prep time for any Valley team, mistakes were par for the course, as were occasional glimpses of excellence.

The performances were uneven, which makes sense considering the short 18-day preseason, with no spring football to boot because of the March advent of the virus. One always expects such a topsy-turvy affair at the campaign beginning, and the bizarre circumstances leading up to Lid-lifter 2020 made things even weirder.

Nonetheless, the contours of the latest North outfit can be gleaned from the action Thursday. Expect Gonzalez’ team to be strong in the box, with an experienced d-line group and some impressive size on an o-line that has dealt with some early adversity.

“We lost a few because of COVID risks,” Gonzalez said before the scrimmage, which would unfold on a very pleasant evening, though with zero fans in the stands. “A couple of our guys decided not to play, which we understand. But I still feel good about the line we have, all in all.”

In 2019 the Coogs rallied late, after a troubling start, to make the playoffs, and Gonzalez is looking for more success this time around. With shifty lefty quarterback Mike Rodriguez back at the helm, the offense has a double threat with experience, though with the “don’t hit the QB, he cannot run more than five yards” rules at the scrimmage against Pace, Rodriguez was not able to really show his tremendous running ability.

He made up for that by firing a couple of laser beam touchdown passes in the latter stages of the first session, countering a pair of scores registered by the Vikings earlier in the roll. North outgained Pace in the first part and came up with a 55-yard scoring catch from Chino Suarez and a TD of the same distance from Rodriguez to Yahir Rodriguez. The Coogs rushed for just 41 yards in that part, with Giancarlo Reyes, the massive and powerful back, accounting for much of it.

Defensively North was fooled on a third-down draw play for a 47-yard running six and its busy corners were tested quite a lot, allowing a 55-yard scoring toss on a fluky bang-bang where the DB almost had a pick but the Pace receiver came up with the catch, racing untouched from there to the end zone.

For the live portion of two quarters the Vikings, who had been gaining yardage on the ground, then passed with alacrity, compiling 102 yards and notching a third touchdown. The Coogs bogged down in the live action, with just two first downs, but the effort to hold Pace out in the shadow of the North goal line was a highlight. Pretty even scrum overall, it was.

Individually, both Jacob Paez and Ernie Sustaita recorded multiple pancakes on the offensive front, while stocky defensive tackle Robert Ortiz turned in two tackles for loss. Ortiz and lithe end Raul Gonzalez will anchor the front four, with sizeable linebackers Aurelio Lozano (100 percent now after injuries marred his junior season) and Daniel Rodriguez looking ready for prime time, which by the way begins next Friday at home against the P-SJ-A Bears.

The unquestioned leader of this year’s secondary is the talented Moises Maldonado, who made some good licks Thursday and provided a fine-quality moment with a leaping pass deflection at midfield. He and Gerry Pena are returning starters in the defensive backfield, Jason Duarte knows the ropes, and LBs Justin Cappadona and Malachi Ortega will help the D, along with promising sophomore Eduardo Molina.

“I think our defense is going to be salty this year,” said Gonzalez, a former North star of the program’s district title season of 1992. “We’ve got some big, strong kids there. And we have a good mix of veterans and some young guys who we think can contribute as sophomores.”By this time last season, the Valley teams were well into the meat of the league schedule, having played seven of 10 ball games. Because of the maddening delay to 2020, Oct. 23 will mark the initial entry to the fray, but all area squads are in the same boat of uncertainty. How well they react to the unparalleled nature of the compressed and abbreviated slate – and how quickly – will make the next several autumn weeks a fascinating pageant to watch. 

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