October 22, 2020

By Greg Selber

PHARR – Gabe Pena, the dean of city coaches, has developed a theme for the 2020 football drill, one which encompasses a lot more than just first downs and key stops.

As his Econ team worked here Thursday night in the season opener – by this stage last year the Valley was into Week Eight – the long-time mentor found key junctures where he repeated the phrase that he hopes pays this long-awaited season.

First, when explosive Fermin Hernandez had troubles with the opening kickoff, setting his offense up at the 13, Pena hollered to his team. 

“Let’s go, boys, don’t let go the rope! “

Hernandez, who would have had a legitimate shot at a 1,000-yard season had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic, might just get there in the abbreviated version. And he now took 87 steps toward that goal with a scintillating 87-yard touchdown run the play following the opening kick, sending the small and handpicked crowd of Jag fans into ecstasy.

Pena stalked the sidelines with a wide grin, turning to his coaches and pumping a fist in the air. He was to repeat the axiom several times during an up-and-down affair against a Raider club that had started a week early (a loss to a surprising 5A Mercedes, who then defeated 6A McAllen High Thursday for a 2-0 start) and was in some respects a bit further ahead of the Orange, preparation/experience-wise.

“We showed it in the scrimmage last week, we would do some really good things and then suffer some mistakes,” Pena had explained before the ball game. “We’ve had these kids for three weeks, which obviously is not the way it usually works. Many of our kids, the migrants, heck, we’ve barely had them for one or two. But they have done everything we’ve asked and they are committed, very proud of the way their attitude has been. ‘Don’t Let go the Rope’ is about consistency, toughness, and trying to stay calm out there when things don’t go as we planned.”


Intermittently, things went as the Jags planned, and at other times, not. In the main, they maintained their composure, launching to 21 first-half points good for a deadlock at the break, before tiring in the second half and making some lapses eventuating in a 48-21 loss.

Rewind. After Hernandez’ scamper, the Raiders came back fast with a 4-play drive that culminated in a 32-yard run from Isaac Gonzalez, who is definitely one of the best backs in the Valley. For the night, the Raiders would churn out 541 rushing yards, with Gonzalez well over 200 and PN’s little freshman quarterback torturing the Econ defense with keepers for long gains, often out of an empty backfield set or the Pistol. The Raiders ripped off TD romps of 32, 24, 49, 30, and 73, the last coming late in the night when the Econ defense was plain pooped.

But there were more than a few signs of encouragement. After the Raiders tied things at 7 in the first period, they got the ball back and drove to the Econ 20 before the stoppers held. Then, senior Nathan Garcia sailed a pass to sprinter Victor Salinas and the junior wideout turned and ran, producing a 73-yard touchdown at, well … not sure of the time because by this point the clock at P-SJ-A Stadium had done gone on hiatus, perhaps because of a digital … virus? 

At any rate, 14-7 visitor, but the penalties were starting to add up. Each side was victimized by its own shoddy execution and, one has to add, a disturbing propensity for quick and numerous flags from an officiating crew that seemed bent on earning its pay, and then some, Thursday. #LetThemPlayRef.

Defensively, though they allowed that whopping rushing total, the Jags had some fine performances. The first came from defensive end Jose Luna, who barged in for a pair of tackles for loss to stunt the next North drive at the Jag 23. The other bookend on the East Side line this season is rangy Josue Carrasco, who paced the team with 10 tackles.

Penalties and the gift of a short field enabled the Raiders to get back to square, 14-all, and after the extra point, Pena took the time to remonstrate with his kids.

“We know better than that, alright?” he stressed. “Don’t let go the rope. Let’s get it back!”

They were to do that, but only after North had driven 16 plays for a 21-14 lead late in the quarter. The rebuttal started with a long kickoff return by Hernandez, who motored all the way to the Raider 29. Adrian Garcia was the guy who then forged the re-tie, hauling in a 16-yard ball from Nathan Garcia with just 24 seconds left.

Yardage more or less even for the half, score exactly even. The second half promised more excitement. To begin, the Jags got a break when a Raider punt traveled all of four yards, setting them up at the enemy 33. But the passing game misfired at this stage and the visitor came up empty, leading to a devastating stretch which told the tale for the opener.

The Raiders rambled 67 yards in seven plays to take a 28-21 advantage and then pulled the call of the game, on onside kick recovered by the kicker. On the very next play, Gonzalez went all the way, 48 yards, and in 12 seconds the Raiders had notched two scores, never to be headed again.

After a promising drive ended near midfield, Econ seemed visibly tired, and was to surrender another pair of scores down the stretch. Luck was not with the Jags on the road, but one sequence did yield some: another long kick return by Hernandez was at first nullified by a penalty. Pena raced out to confront the refs because it appeared that the block in question had been one of those dream sequences a kid always fantasizes about. As Hernandez took off, one of the Jags caught the Raider headhunter just as he turned to the side, blasting him off his feet with a shoulder slam that was plainly textbook, smash-mouth football. Amazingly, after a steady diatribe from the coach in orange, the officials saw the light and reversed the call, amid clamor from both sides. One will just not see this happen very often, but it did Thursday.

For the game the Jags gained a reasonable 324 total yards, Hernandez ending with 122 on the ground and Salinas adding a 58-yard catch to make a sum of 131 receiving yards. But that’s 218 yards on three snaps, meaning for the measure of the night Econ picked up just 106 more with a measly nine first downs.

The defense did not truly break until the late going and there were several standouts. Defensive tackle Robert Garza was an imposing force with eight stops before the burly junior exited with an ankle injury in the third period. Linebacker Raul Aguilar, a steady soldier with starting chops from 2019, contributed nine tackles and safety Simon Garcia made seven.

Before his squad had returned to action Thursday, the always thoughtful Pena put into words his ideas about the 2020 season.

“Look at those boys over there, they’re ready to go, they’re warriors,” he beamed. The kids were sitting on chairs, six feet apart, sweating from warmups and preparing for battle. “No locker rooms tonight, we’ll just stay out here. it took us eight buses to get here, because of social distancing. All these things, well, we all know this is different than it ever has been, but these guys, they’re all in, they haven’t ever complained or been down. 

“I am thinking that because of we have been through, the chemistry will be better this season. One thing is for sure, we are happy to be playing, and once we learn some more consistency, to keep hold of that rope, I think we are going to have a successful season.”In their first foray, the Jags had their bright spots, their detonations of skill, and despite a misleading final score line, they stand unbowed, rope in hand, waiting for the next challenge. Next up, EHS this Friday, and historically, that fixture has never failed to produce hard licks and determined efforts from both parties.

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