Oct. 30, 2020

By Greg Selber

In the not so distant past, he commandeered the Team of the Decade, winning 88 times for the Bobcats in the 1980s and taking them to three straight appearances in the third round of the playoffs, back when getting that far was infinitely more difficult to do.

Friday night, Richard R. Flores returned to the house he helped build – and which of course bears his name in tribute – to watch the latest edition of Bobcat Pride. One of his ex-players, as most know, is now the head coach at their alma mater.

“Coach surprised me last week, came out to school to visit on Wednesday,” said J.J. Leija, beaming from ear to ear. “That was really special, and I told the kids about all the things he has accomplished. He bleeds red and blue, I tell you that, and I wanted the players to understand even more about what Bobcat Pride means.”

Leija was speaking before Friday’s encounter with Econ, which is enjoying its own walk down Memory Lane this season in celebrating its 20th year of existence. Each team had begun the COVID-delayed campaign with a defeat, EHS at Mission and the Jaguars at Pharr North. That fact, and the other: that these two have always taken great relish in clobbering each other in the best of senses, made this a compelling matchup. And it was made even more meaningful with Flores and his incredible wife on hand to witness the spectacle on a marvelously crisp autumn evening.

Back when the Bobcats ruled the Valley, they were known for massive offensive lines, rock-ribbed defense (1985 comes to mind, when they allowed just 56 points in 12 contests) and the occasional super individual sprinkled in. Steve Alaniz was one of the greats of the era on offense, later playing for Notre Dame, while linebacker Joel Olivarez made the grade at TCU and versatile Paul Alsbury (Southwest Texas State) was another stud; he’s a 2020 RGV Sports Hall of Fame electee.

Nowadays, Leija has his own tremendous one-two punch of stalwarts, and the senior pair paced EHS to a 38-14 victory Friday, waking echoes of saintly program gods of yesteryear.

On one side of the ball there was Shandon Woodard, 210 pounds of coiled steel who rambled for 179 yards, detonating for a 45-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game and later ripping off gains of 12, 11, and 23 yards for a 14-0 lead just three minutes in.

Defensively, it was once again El Senor del Pueblo, Emmanuel Duron, dominating the line of scrimmage at end, kicking five extra points and a field goal, and illustrating his deep oeuvre with two touchdowns, one in each half. The Man Mountain hauled in a 6-yard scoring flip from QB Rolando Abrego in the second period, absolutely erasing a would-be tackler at the goal line. And he hammered through the Econ front in the second half, lifting his mates to a 38-7 lead.

Those two Bobcats were standouts to say the most, as EHS grabbed the early lead, kept the mistakes to a minimum, and got past last week’s dispiriting 51-7 loss on the road at Mission.

“We simplified some things this week, that was a tough team we were in against, so we had to come back strong,” said Leija, who told his group beforehand to start fighting from the opening whistle and let the Jags know that they were going to be there all night. “We have a lot of youth, but they grew up tonight. Coach Flores was one of my mentors and I wanted us to play well for him. Another coach who really influenced me was Bruce Bush and he always said that a team has to get better from Week One to Week Two. And I think we were able to do that here.”


Before Woodard’s first dash to the house, Abraham Gonzalez started it off with a big kickoff return all the way to the Econ 45. Leija says that the junior Gonzalez, who compiled 92 yards on 13 carries – mostly in the second half as Woodard rested – is the heir apparent.

The second Shandon Score, part of a sequence where he cut, smashed and hustled his way to four straight first downs, was made easier with a slick punt return by sophomore Noel Serna, a kid with a well-developed spin move already.

It was the Bobcats’ night as they then got an onside kick recovery from junior Aleksander Trevino, who ran under Duron’s blooping quail and caught it in the air directly after Woodard’s second six. Though the ‘Cats failed to capitalize on the self-made break, they came back to get a third score when Woodard whipsawed 33 yards downfield, followed by the short pass to Duron.

The Jags, who found the going rough against Duron and the EHS D, got on track with a 60-yard bomb from QB Nathan Garcia to speedy Victor Salinas (later to exit with a knee injury). This connection set up a 1-yard run from Fermin Hernandez (70 yards on 15 tries, the team gained 124 on the ground, 117 through the air) at 7:53 of the half. EHS went into the break up 24-7 after a subsequent 32-yard field goal from Duron.

The ‘Cats, who rushed for a healthy 337 yards on 50 attempts and controlled the game throughout, marched nine plays to start the second half before bogging down at the Jag 30. But sophomore EHS corner Ben Gonzalez skied for an interception on the next snap, whereupon the offense entered paydirt again after five plays. A nifty middle screen to Woodard netted 35 yards and eventually Abrego made it 31-7 with a swift carry of 17 yards, late in the third.

As the night neared its conclusion, EHS having tacked on its final tally via the aforementioned Duron power punch, the Jags got something to build on, zooming 83 yards on a sharp drive that ended as did the contest. Cody Salas, surrounded by three Bobcat defenders, somehow managed to come up with a much-tipped 25-yard scoring catch – on his back! – as the horn sounded, fashioning the final margin.

Flores and his wife had already departed by then, but their presence had truly been felt. As the fine PA announcer Leo Reyes had said earlier in the night: “Welcome Home, Coach Flores!”

Leija’s team was supposed to follow up the Econ tilt with one against Vela, but with the SaberCat season on hold due to the inexorable virus, he will now get the ‘Cats ready for North, in two weeks’ time.

“We are going to focus on North, and continue to get better,” he intoned amid the postgame celebration, an activity which has become muted and odd during the pandemic; the teams do not go through the longstanding “Good Game” tradition of slapping hands with the other team as the phalanxes pass one other. Now they stand inside the hash per orthodox social-distancing fashion, waving at the enemy. Just one more weird aspect of football 2020, but oh well.

“We’re a little shorthanded this season, not a lot of numbers,” Leija remarked. “But, tonight we got to fix some things, we played a solid ball game. And having Coach Flores here, well, I hope my kids understand all that he means to the town, our program, and to me personally. I love my coach, man!”

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