Nov. 13, 2020

By Greg Selber

Friday was a big deal, really. Because as the football season limped along, hobbled and stunted by You Know What, it had begun to look as if one of the Valley’s most successful franchises would be left out in the cold. Just when it appeared that the SaberCats would never get off the island, though, they appeared in the flesh.

And that is always enough to satisfy.

Though missing a cadre of key seniors due to COVID (sick of that word), Vela put on a solid effort against Econ at Richard R. Flores Stadium, winning 44-7 in a walk. And though there were plenty of miscues, timing issues, and the like, the Sabes and their supporters – hundreds strong despite being marooned on the visitor’s side – will be happy to have gotten back into the mix. When last they were seen, the Blue and Black were stomping Mission Vets. But that was 21 days ago, and now Vela was faced with the task of going through important fine-tuning motions, generally executed in the nascent stages of a season, while conversely the entire sub-6A contingent of Valley squads is already in the playoffs (and nearly out, as it looks at this juncture).

The Sabes worked without Mito Perez, Ivan Mendoza, P.J. Rivera, and Austin Carrillo –basically the bulk of their vaunted offensive crew. The good news was that program legend A.J. Sotelo was healthy, which always means trouble for opposing defenses. Sotelo turned in a credible outing, shaking off rust and the absence of his key parts to complete 21 of 34 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns as the Sabes went up 13-0 in the first period and eventually led, 23-0, at the break. 

The other good news was the fact that because some of the stars were forcibly obscured by the fog of illness, the coaches had the opportunity to get long looks at a handful of the Other Guys, some of whom might just be the big-timers of the next moons.

In lieu of Rivera, the backfield chores were shared by Delvid Cupa and Ted Galvan. Each of them produced quality Friday. Cupa, a track man who is built well, scored three times – including a 34-yard romp to open the point-making at 7:32 of the first – and tallied 51 yards on seven carries. Galvan is a north-south junior with some moves and a bit of pop at the point of attack. He hauled in a 14-yard touchdown on a screen at 3:11 of the quarter, leaving two Jags on their backs with nifty cuts; he also hammered through a Jag defender on the sideline on another play, and ended with 71 yards on seven carries. The Sabes rushed for 165 yards Friday and pushed past 500 total, thanks in part to a fourth-quarter bomb of 58 yards from junior Chase Campbell to sophomore Bobby Garcia.

Campbell and Garcia will be part of the future, because Sotelo is a senior and off to play college baseball in time. The strapping Campbell, whose ability has never been the issue, has patiently waited his turn, and has become a superb kickoff specialist while cooling his heels in the wings. Garcia is one of several youngsters looking to fill in the cracks after the graduation of Justin Cantu and Kevin Rojas, both now competing at the next level.

The 2021 preview of sorts also focused on junior tight end Jaden Tovar, who has been more than competent so far and also eased into the job as holder on kicks. As the Sabes sliced and diced the 0-4 Jags, the main targets were Justin Vega and Carlos Tamez. The former is a proven commodity as a receiver and punter, and after a slow start Friday he amassed 83 yards on five catches, gloving a 34-yard scoring strike from Sotelo with 3:02 left in the third. This made the score 37-0. Tamez was straight-up open all night and took advantage of gaps in the Econ back seven to locate seven balls for 103 yards.

Sotelo, given ample time by a line that has a number of underclassmen (see theme develop here), proved that even with the herky jerky nature of the campaign, he is cool as ever, accurate with a quick release, and able to move the offense – no matter the complements – like a real chessmaster.

A scan of the Vela roster of Coach John Campbell reveals that of the 69 members of 2020, a full 47 are set to return to the fold next season. And nowhere is this youth and promise more obvious than on defense. Of the 17 kids who registered a tackle or more against Econ, 12 are underclass prospects, some seasoned, others not.

It starts up front with Jake Dufner, a strong-looking man-child who has shown excellent explosion and power. Also a prime baseball prospect for Coach Jaime Perez, Dufner was in on eight stops in Vela’s return to action but his best moments were when he did not end up making the tackle. Three times his quickness off the ball led to chaos in the Orange backfield, allowing teammates to swoop in and clean up tackles-for-loss. Peep this kid, 99.

Junior Nilson Garcia is a rough customer inside while Raul Guajardo, one of the few seniors on D, has been around. So has senior linebacker Erik Arguello, whose partners at the second level are all juniors; active Ivan Nova can get to the ball, while Ryan Rodriguez, brother of Nico, packs some pounding power when he arrives.

With Mendoza sidelined, Vela’s secondary went to war with youth on its side, junior Matt Luna manning the right corner and defending three passes (Econ was 6 of 21 for just 51 yards) and the sophomore duo of Justin Navarro and Jorge Vazquez each grabbing an interception.

It was always going to be hard for the injury-riddled Jags to stay on the field with Vela, though one recalls that in the formative period of the rivalry, Coach Gabe Pena’s charges won the first two battles. Friday Econ did itself no favors by fumbling away the kickoff after Galvan’s screen TD, leading to a 30-yard field goal from Job Juarez. The second turnover did not yield points, but Econ was unable to move the ball in what had to be one of the longest first quarters in the history of high school football.

You know special teams play has always been a Vela strong suit, and in this ball game, the Sabes put massive pressure on the Econ punt team, leading to short fields galore. The great returns of safety Josh Garcia (who also saw offensive snaps and caught a 25-yarder) did not help the East Side effort stay afloat.

Vela also applied vicious pressure on passer Nathan Garcia, who was to leave the proceedings with an ankle injury in the second half. A 35-yard score from Sotelo to Tamez made it 30-0 as the third rolled on, and then with Garcia out for the Jags, cornerback Javier Medellin was forced into the Wildcat role for the remainder of the night.

The long bright spot for the Jags came on a late 11-play drive which culminated in a 10-yard run for six from Fermin Hernandez, who picked up 99 yards Friday and showed serious toughness by returning to action after being shaken up a few times.

It was what one might have expected. At times the Sabes were precise, deadly, and potent, and at others, looked like a team that had only played once before the night began. Now it’s collisions with North and then EHS as Campbell’s band of newbies hopes to get the marquee names back in the fold sooner than later. Then, the oddity of the Zone Playoffs, which could mean a matchup against the Mission Eagles, who are clearly the class of the other zone, these two z’s having been created on the fly as the truncated season rattled on. In the distance, depending on seeds and enrollment, maybe it’s the Harlingen Cardinals, who wrapped up their zone with a victory against Weslaco Friday. Slow down, me.

Right now, just let the kids get used to the Friday Night Lights again. The victory over Econ was not about anything save finding the range on a New Normal, an elusive concept that everyone, everywhere can dig, with a knowing nod of recognition.

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