Dec. 4, 2020

By Greg Selber

No, it wasn’t quite Easy Street, but that’s fine.

What it was, was a challenge, a few punches in the mouth, and an opportunity for the SaberCats to face a quality opponent as they prepare for the Real Playoffs. Friday brought Mission to town for the Zone Playoffs, a 2020 invention through necessity, and Vela withstood a fearsome Eagle blitz tsunami to post a 24-7 victory. It was a gutsy effort that harkened back to the old days, smashmouth football without a whole lot of video game/7 on 7 highlights.

Overall, it clinched the program’s fifth district title in the last six seasons and made the coach happy. What else is there?

“Hats off to Mission, no doubt,” said Coach John Campbell after the physical battle which raised his unit’s record to 5-0 heading into bi-district next week, at home against Weslaco. “They had a good defensive scheme, well-coached bunch, and we had to really come with some adjustments at the half. In a way it was a throwback game, there was a lot of strategy involved on both sides.”

Yes indeed, an old-fashioned slobberknocker during which the Sabes proved that they’re not just a pretty boy, big play operation. They can get down and dirty when they have to and illustrated that by limiting Mission to just 160 total yards, recording five sacks, and holding an opponent to 35 rushing yards or less for the third straight contest.

Say what you will – rightly so – about the Valley’s top quarterback A.J. Sotelo and the offensive weapons this club has. But in 2020, defense has been the wild card for the Blue and Black.

“I thought we did a great job defensively tonight,” Campbell remarked. “All year long those guys have been flying around, making plays; it’s a smaller, faster defense than some teams have but they execute our plans and really, the’ve been impressive all season long.”

Friday, as Mission threw everything but the kitchen sink at Vela, often sending six players into and through the box, the Sabes followed suit. Senior Raul Guajardo had perhaps his game from a tackle spot; he and Nilson Garcia made life miserable for Eagle QB Jeremy Duran, leading a breakneck charge that produced five sacks. In the secondary, the youngsters got burned for a 32-yard touchdown near the end of the first half, cutting a 10-0 lead to three points. But overall, that group did well, aided by veteran Ivan Mendoza, who returned to action after extended injury time and made seven tackles.

The Sabes held Mission out on a big first-half drive, as Garcia and Ryno Rodriguez combined to halt a fourth-down attempt at the Vela 9. That was enormous, seeing that the Eagles later scored that passing TD at the wire. Could have been worse.

Faced with a Mission group that wouldn’t go away, Vela girded up in the second half and dominated. They stopped the Eagles cold, allowing just three first downs after the break. And they carved out two more scores, both from Ted Galvan, the junior slicer/dicer who compiled 109 yards in a vital relief effort of injured classmate P.J. Rivera; the latter expects to be ready for bi-district.

No razzle dazzle Friday, just good, hard Old School football, and another title in the trophy case on Canton.

“They limited what we intended to do and again, good coaching,” Campbell said of Mission, which held Sotelo to a season-low 129 passing yards. Facing a fiery rush, including a linebacker and sometimes a safety or corner coming hell bent for leather on the snap, Sotelo was forced to rely on short, quick passes. He completed 18 of 26 but only four completions went for more than 10 yards. There were no bombs. 

“But we popped a few runs in the second half and that helped us out a lot,” Campbell said. “Ted has really gotten better as the season has worn on; he has very good vision as a running back.”


When the opening kickoff at Richard R. Flores Stadium came down, Austin Carrillo – another senior who has had a difficult time, missing four games – provided the first spark with a nifty return down to the Eagle 47. From there Sotelo made two third-down aerial conversions against the murderous Mission rush and then he steamed in from the 5 to make it 7-0 at 7:30.

With Guajardo playing inspired football – that entire Vela d-line was immense Friday – the Sabes dumped Duran twice in the early going. Later in the quarter, the Eagles fumbled a punt and junior Ethan Aguirre recovered at the Mission 44. With 3:34 left in the first, Job Juarez connected on a 35-yard field goal, marking the fifth match in a row he has successfully nailed a three-pointer. He is very accurate, is Juarez, and never tries his coach’s patience (been waiting for that Biblical shout-out all season).

At this stage it smelled like roses, but the Eagles, who dominated their zone with ease while Vela was making short work of its, have a very solid football team. No wonder this was the Game of the Week. For a SaberCat team that had barely been tested in four triumphs, this was just the tonic. Got to get ready. And they did.

The Eagles ruined two Vela drives in the second period, with traps of Sotelo, and then came the sequences where Mission might have taken the lead. The Eagles were halted at the 10, no points. But late in the period, Vela shanked a punt and Mission took over at the 32, leading to the aforementioned scoring strike: 10-7 at the half. Usually the Sabes, much as the EHS hoops teams used to do back in the glory hours, close halves with expertise; this one got away, and such is life.

After the adjustments Campbell mentioned, Vela looked salty in the third, taking a short field jaunt of 35 yards to extend its lead to 17-7 at 9:10. A pass interference call on the Eagles helped, and there were a ton of flags flying in the secondary for the Zone Playoffs. Most deserved, one supposes, a few ticky tacky.

When the Eagles tried to rally, the defense was cool as Matt Luna, the 5-8 junior corner working against a 6-1 Mission receiver, came up with four passes defensed. And the front guys kept rolling downhill, erasing the run as a possibility and harrying Duran into bunches of incompletes.

And then it came, as the fourth quarter began. Up 10, starting at their own 9, the Sabes put together the Championship Drive they always seem to be capable of when they need it. Galvan ripped off a 25-yard gain, momentum was augmented by two penalties against the visitor and soon enough, Galvan was in from the 5 at 8:48. It looked like the Eagles had worn themselves out with three quarters of all-out assault. Still later, the elusive Galvan jetted for a thrilling 87-yard touchdown, but an illegal block part-canceled the result, though the Sabes did move from their own 13 to the Mission 39 on the play, after the mark-off. 

To cap this emphatic statement by the Valley’s No. 1 team, the ferocious Guajardo and Garcia paired up again for the final sack and that was that, champs again. They did this one with more force and less flourish, but they were comfortable with that. Instead of dancing up and down the field piling up points in droves, they brought their lunch pails to work, providing some random old-timers in the gallery an authentic taste of what gridiron was like in the light of earlier moons: hitting, hustle, and determination. Loved it!


Some people have been saying that the Panthers are a year away, as they have some talented young players. But Coach Roy Stroman, who took over for former Vela leader Michael Salinas two years back, has done well with his gang, winning three of four games in the truncated 2020 slate. The Panthers lost 13-10 to the Zone champion Harlingen Cardinals, knocking off Harlingen South, Los Fresnos and Donna North besides that. They did somehow surrender 32 points to a winless Donna North team and that is puzzling, but Weslaco perennially has a quality product, make no mistake.

As always, the Panthers run first, second and sometimes third; this season senior Rodney Garza has attempted 44 passes in four starts. When they do connect, it’s usually for ample gain, to the tune of 16 yards per catch. But the watchword is the ground game and in senior Jesse Hernandez, Stroman has a 180-pound back who eclipsed 100 yards in each of the four contests, including 106 versus the Cards.

There are several excellent kids on defense but pay special attention to the linebacking pair of Josh Burket and Ethan Zamora, both more than 6-foot and going about 190 each. They’re big hitters who anchor the Panther crew from the middle.

It’s hard to say in this weird year, but all accounts suggest that Vela, undefeated zone king, should be a touchdown favorite at home. It will probably come down to physicality again, and if the Sabes can stand in and duke it out for four quarters like they did Friday, locals have to like their chances of moving on in the Dance.

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