Nov. 20, 2020

By Greg Selber

A tad on the vertigo-inducing side really, when one considers that mid-November is usually the time for the second round of the playoffs, more or less. This oddity to 2020 was certainly not been lost on John Campbell as the Vela football coach led his team into just its third contest of the campaign, at home Friday against North.

“It really has impacted us, from the standpoint of rhythm and timing,” he said, after the SaberCats withstood a series of minor troubles to subdue the Cougars, 38-10. “I mean we’re heading into Thanksgiving almost and this is what, our third game? Football is about timing and you can’t get that down very quickly, it has to be something your guys work on, week after week in practice and then in each ball game.”

Still, the veteran winner is not going to make any complaints beyond stating the obvious. It is what it is. And he will find something positive to fixate on.

“And on the other hand, we have gotten a chance to see some new faces out there, and that is exciting,” Campbell noted, after his defending champs rumbled once again without several key lights due to the Illness That Must Not Be Named. “Good to see some youngsters out there having a chance to show what they can do. But does it affect our overall timing? Honestly, it really does.”

This matchup, like this season was long in coming, as the rivals were supposed to have faced off several weeks back. Friday they finally came together, with the Cougars seeking to stay afloat despite a rash of injuries that has thrown a wrench into what was looking like a promising season for a senior-led bunch. 

Going without center Jacob Paez, linebacker Aurelio Lozano, and a host of other stalwarts, the Coogs at least got elusive little lefty Mike Rodriguez back behind center. For a half at least, because toward the end of the second period, he was knocked out of action after a sideline stick from Vela. Scoreless to that point, North would stumble on without its QB, finishing with a motley 133 total yards, all but 39 of that coming on two snaps.

Vela’s defense was speedy and sure from the get-go, and once again the Sabes (3-0) administered numerous sequences of superb special-teams play. Kick cover and punt rush were exceptionally effective Friday while kicker Job Juarez was 5 for 5 on extra points and added a career-long 37-yard field goal late in the night to make it 38-3. Only a bomb from North backup Robert Gonzalez to Gabriel Gonzalez, going 69 yards six minutes from time, got the struggling offense into the end zone, for the game’s final tally.


It was not, then, a grade-A performance from the Sabes, who were plagued by penalties and a dogged North D that did a reasonably decent job despite the score. But even when not clicking on all proverbial cylinders, Campbell’s crew had more than enough juice to post the W in preps for Friday’s afternoon collision with 2-1 EHS.

It started with a sharp drive featuring a 13-yard burst from junior P.J. Rivera and an 11-yard scamper from senior A.J. Sotelo to set up a 27-yard dart from Sotelo to junior Justin Vega (eight catches, 113 yards) at 9:26 of the first.

North then dug in, knowing that against a squad that has dominated the football in town the past five seasons, any slip early on might lead to a blowout. And the Coogs did respond with alacrity, moving downfield with the crunching runs of senior Jean Carlo Reyes and some pinpoint throws from Rodriguez (5 of 7 in the half). But the drive stalled at the 20, the Coogs having come up a yard short on fourth down after Matt Luna and Josh Garcia led a tackling party on a Rodriguez keeper – empty set, Reyes on motion on the play, probably to dummy a screen – to force a turnover on downs.

Not to be outdone, North later did its own defensive thing, coming up with a minus-13 on Sotello (forced by Moises Maldonado and Trebor Acuna) to thwart a Vela march that had reached the Cougar 26 early in the second.

As stated, punts were an adventure on Friday, with the Sabes bansheeing in to harass Maldonado on several boots, leading to favorable field position throughout the affair. A poor snap sailed past the punter for a 26-yard loss midway through the second, setting Vela up just nine yards away from paydirt. 

Sotelo, who ran with intensity and quickness, leading the way with 53 yards, carved his way in from the 3 to make it 14-0 at 7:29. Vela compiled a modest 123 steps on the ground but for nearly six yards a pop, getting fearsome blocking from standout tackle Ronnie Garza, the college-lineman to be, along with rangy junior center Brandon Hinojosa and the mauling junior tackle Mark Gomez.

But North continued to push back on D, with DBs Gerrado Pena and Josiah Mendoza destined for six passes defensed, and backfield mate Gio Gonzalez on the way to making eight tackles. That unit forced three three-and-outs during the middle passage of the half, until the Sabes got on track again to amass a 21-0 halftime advantage. A ball from Sotelo (16 of 22 for 198 yards) to Vega went 43 yards for a six at 1:57 of the half.

Still, though North had managed only four first downs and 63 total yards in the opening two stanzas, were not out of the hunt as of yet.


To prove it, the Coogs took the second half kick in the person of WR Jose Suares and steamed down to the Vela 44. They then dropped a sure touchdown pass and suffered a sack created by impressive sophomore end Jake Dufner (eight stops). Here, the cavalcade of flags began in earnest as Vela was whistled for two pass interference violations and an offside call. Despite not moving the football in conventional fashion, the Gold and Blue was entrenched at the Sabe 3 with a prime opportunity to find its way into the game. Alas, a couple of passes misfired, junior Sebastian Guevara making a third-down pass defense in the end zone, and North had to settle for a 22-yard field goal from Yahir Trejo at 8:25.

Any momentum the Coogs had sought to establish then went packing as Sotelo found Carlos Tamez for a 39-yard gain, setting up one of the highlights of a night that admittedly will not go down in city history as one of the most thrilling. Sotelo says that during the various and sundry lockdowns of 2020, he has used the downtime to hit the weights, and a glance at his physique would attest to that. After North’s field goal, the senior star showed why it’s always una buena idea to get into the gym (at home or otherwise): he half-rolled right, looking for a receiver and then appeared to be about to go under via the Coog rush. All of a sudden, he darted away, coming back flush left and seeing an opening. Sotelo then dashed with force (speed increases with the right lifting regimen, sometimes this is forgotten; it’s not just for biceps on the beach) and zoomed toward the left flag, barreling into and through a couple of North tacklers to complete a 17-yard scoring jaunt at 6:36.

The Sabes were to put it to bed soon after as sophomore Justin Navarro snared his second interception in two weeks, setting up a 63-yard, 9-play drive that Rivera finished with a 3-yard burst behind Garza at tackle: it was 35-3 at 1:17. 

Rivera’s best run of the night had been, ironically, a 1-yard loss in the second half during which he blasted through two tacklers behind the line and took on three more in working his way back toward the line of scrimmage to avoid a huge loss. He may be lean but home boy mean; he has heart and underrated strength. 

Navarro, one of the main kick team piranhas along with junior Miguel Ibarra, has come along well at safety as the secondary re-tools in the absence of injured stalwart Ivan Mendoza. It is clear that he, Navarro, has a future with the program.

The Coogs would have one more moment to celebrate, as Jason Duarte leapt to intercept a Vela pass a few ticks later, followed by the Gonzalez home run to Gonzalez, on which the latter Gonzo was so open across the middle that he might have had time to get in a quick round of Fortnite and still outrun the befuddled Sabe secondary to the goal line.

But that was about it for Coog smiles, as they were limited to just 35 yards on 30 rushing attempts, and compiled eight first downs all night, several by penalty.

Dufner of Vela was joined up front by rugged senior Raul Guajardo, and linebacker Erik Arguelles turned in 10 tackles as did Ivan Nova. Luna at corner brought the boom stick on a pair of rib-rattling hits and “Ryno” Rodriguez continued to stuff the middle with malas intenciones.

So now it appears that Vela might be looking at a probable title match against Mission in the zone playoffs; that is, if it can defeat the Bobcats on Friday, 2 p.m. be there. EHS will be rested and ready to go, seeking to throw its duo of dominators, Emmanuel Duron and Shandon Woodard, against a Sabercat squad that has not played its best football yet.

As Campbell said, it takes several weeks for a ball club to get all the kinks ironed out, streamline its execution, and start to be championship-caliber for all four quarters. The Bobcats will be the next city luminary to step up to the dish and take their swings at a program that is now 15-5 lifetime versus its pals from around town.The victory over North meant that Vela has now won five straight in that series by an aggregate margin of 232-62. The Sabes have clobbered EHS four straight times from 2016-19, 183-42, with the ‘Cats having been held to a single score over the past eight Old Cat-New Cat quarters of play. In short, Vela has not lost a City Rivalry Game since 2013. Read that again.

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