Dec. 11, 2020
By Greg Selber
It was going to have to be the seniors, the kids who had been there before, guys who knew what it’s like to take some shots, fall off the pace, and then grind back on track, finding a way to survive in the sudden death atmosphere of the playoffs.
And so it was those veterans of the Blue and Black, familiar names to all in town, who withstood every blow the visiting Weslaco Panthers had to throw Friday – and there were some real haymakers – and led their club back from the brink, finally clinching a 38-33 bi-district victory with some historic moments when it counted most.
It wouldn’t be Vela football without No. 7, and as he has done time and again in a three-year gridiron odyssey, A.J. Sotelo was equal to the challenge that the Panthers threw at him. After the Sabes had been run-first through most of the first half, they flipped the script on Weslaco and began to chunk it. Finishing with 259 yards on 18-of-24 work for the night, Sotelo also added three touchdown runs as the SaberCats marched to 6-0 on the season with a super- tense win not achieved until the final gun with an interception in their own end zone.
And what would a SaberCat game be without the sublime Mito Perez? All he did was catch six balls for 140 yards and reprise his former role as a defensive demon on the last series, breaking up a Weslaco bomb on the penultimate play, before Joshua Garcia and senior star Ivan Mendoza combined to snare the last gasp Panther aerial on a snap that began at the Vela 45.
It was that kind of thriller with the Sabes falling behind 12-3 in the first period on a pair of Weslaco dashes, of 74 and 51 yards, on which not a single Vela defender laid a hand on the runner. But they kept regrouping.
This was the first time the district champs had been behind all season, and it was a shock to the system, make no mistake. But instead of hanging their heads or folding, the kids came on back. Starting from their own 2 after a muffed kickoff, the Sabes negotiated the length of the field at Richard R. Flores Stadium, a third-down pass to Jaden Tovar being enormous. Austin Carrillo’s 29-yard TD catch from Sotelo narrowed the gap to 2 at 4:10 of the quarter, but the Panthers then hit a big pass for 35 yards to set up a short six-point run. The Panthers, winners of three of four games in the abbreviated season, got 160 yards on three huge plays in the half, and looked like a 21-10 leader late in the half.
Field position was a problem all night for Vela and so was kick coverage, surprisingly. But late in the half the Sabes showed their mettle by gunning from their own 21 to the Red Zone thanks to a 63-yard burst from junior Ted Galvan, and with just two seconds left in the half, Sotelo zipped in from the 6 to make it 20-17, Panthers.
Coach John Campbell admitted to being somewhat surprised at some of the things that Roy Stroman’s club pulled off in the first 24 minutes.
“That one is on me, those two long runs early,” said the coach. “We hadn’t seen any of that on film, and we just got fooled. I was a bit disappointed that we gave up some big plays, but kudos to Weslaco, and as I say, I feel like I could have done a better job of getting the kids ready.”
No matter, as the veteran coach and his staff went back to the drawing board at the break, making adjustments as is their specialty. It worked wonders, as the Panthers were held to 24 yards rushing after the break and outside of some late passes we will discuss, found the going way tougher against the home side’s defense.
Meanwhile, Sotelo and the offense illustrated their balance and versatility by coming out cranking after intermission. From their own 21, they hammered downfield, though junior P.J. Rivera – 73 yards Friday, the Sabes had punched for 165 ground yards in the first half, six off their season high for an entire game – re-injured his shoulder on his first carry of the third. Rivera had set the aggressive tone early Friday by ripping off some seriously hard-nosed runs in the first half. Sotelo was winging it now, and he completed two third-down passes to Perez for first downs, finishing the 12-play march himself with a 9-yard score at 5:30 to give Vela the lead, 24-21.
This was just one outstanding football game, one of the best in many nights at The Flores.
After a three-and-out from Weslaco, the Sabes looked to increase the lead, but lost a fumble at their own 41, whereupon the Purple Gang went deep for a touchdown pass to regain the advantage, 27-24 on the initial snap of the fourth. Not usually known as a throwing group, the Panthers nonetheless had the lightning strikes when they needed then, at least until the closing minutes.
Here was a key juncture of the night, among many. Vela went out on downs at the Weslaco 34 but on the ensuing possession, sophomore Jake Dufner forced a fumble that linebacker Ryno Rodriguez recovered, with 7:53 to go in a wild night.
With Sotelo completing 4 of 4 passes, the Sabes nudged into the lead at 5:09 on Sotelo’s third TD run. The key play of the drive had come earlier as Sotelo, forced out of the pocket, was about to tuck it and run before he alertly spotted safety valve Ryan Clough floating free. Flipping the ball forward almost like a shovel pass, Sotelo netted a first down to the 7. Find a way, indeed.
Now, with a 31-27 lead, the defense came through again as Matt Luna defended a second-down pass and Dufner rushed the passer with malice and tipped the throw away for an INC.
Key juncture two had arrived. After a punt, up by 4 and facing a 3rd and 10 at their own 27, the Sabes eschewed the percentages, the run-it-and-kick. And it paid off handsomely when Sotelo found Perez on the right sideline for a first down. Although it wasn’t a first down, boi, it was a freakin’ touchdown! Perez deftly tip-toed down the line after staying upright thanks to a hand on the turf. Picking up a key stalk block from junior Justin Vega, Perez then motored 73 yards for an absolutely monumental touchdown to make it 38-27 with just 3:46 left.
Somehow, though, one imagined it was not quite over, and one was correct. Summoning the spirit of Sone “The Great” Cavazos, the nonpareil passer of Panther vintage, 1991, Weslaco went pitch and catch in a hurry, using three gainers to get into the end zone at 2:09, missing the 2-point conversion as they did on two of three attempts Friday.
Mad and zany, it was as Vela tried to run out the clock, after Weslaco’s onside kick scooted out of bounds. Galvan (89 yards in bi-district) was stuffed in that endeavor, and the Panthers had one more chance, from their own 36. They completed a 19-yard ball to the Vela 45 in the waning seconds and then Mito came on to do his do. On the final play of an exhausting evening, the Sabes doubled the receiver long, and came up with the tandem INT to send the club on to area, where it will oppose San Antonio Brennan, the real McCoy from up north.
After this heart-stopping victory, all smiles, and rightfully so. Vela has faced a real threat from the Panthers and lived to tell about it.
In the postgame din, senior tackle Raul Guajardo looked at the mass of jubilant teammates, and cracked, “Follow COVOD protocols … ” before jumping into the wrangle of winning Sabes. Sotelo ran over to hug former principal Sylvia Ledesma and a host of other well-wishers, while Campbell and his crew started thinking, as coaches do, about Brennan.
“We had to make sure the kids weren’t frazzled at the big plays Weslaco had,” he said. “We knew that when we got into the locker room at the half, we’d figure it out.”
Part of the answer had to do with turning the seniors loose.
“It was a good thing we got that touchdown before the half. I think it gave us some breathing space,” Campbell noted. As for the 3rd-and-10 pass that went for the downs to Mito:
“We have some playmakers on the outside, no doubt it,” he smiled. “And sometimes you just have to let the kids go out and make plays.”
As for Sotelo, who smashed through the 1,000-yard mark passing for the third year running, well, he was not going to let this end, not here and not now.
“Everybody did their job tonight!” he screamed into a huddle of dizzy pals, minutes after the game-ending interception, as the trophy made its appearance. “Now let’s prepare and get ready, let’s get ready for Brennan!”
Sotelo noted that for the second week in a row, the Sabes faced a defensive crew ready for blood, after last week’s title-winning clash with the hard-edged Mission Eagles.
“We didn’t pass very much at first, coaches wanted us to run and we did pretty well with that,” said the three-year standout. “Then in the second half the pass opened up, and I really just wanted to do what I could to help carry the team, do my best and just execute. We rely on each other, and we have faith in what we can do as a team.”
The Vela leader, who has thrown for 72 touchdowns in his career versus 17 interceptions, noted that the Sabes try to approach every game with the same mindset, and it is simple, really.
“What we tell ourselves is that we play as if losing is not an option,” he said. “Like Coach [Gene] Shupe always says, stay on even keel, no matter what is happening. Stay cool the entire game, and you will win.”
That’s why Sotelo was calm as could be when he fired the ball to Mito that pushed the lead to 11 late in the ball game.
“That was all Coach Van,” he said, referencing offensive coordinator Sean Van de Merghel’s calculated risk to go for the jugular when less nervy sorts might have stayed safe on third and long. “He let us take a shot, the play had been working in the half, and we turned it into something big.”
Something big awaits the Sabes as they advance in the playoffs, to Corpus Christi’s Buc Stadium, site of so many great playoff classics down through time.
Brennan has managed to get 10 ball games in so far in 2020 and the Bears have been successful in nine, including a 48-0 rout of a middling Del Rio team in bi-district. Playing in a league where all schools are named for Supreme Court justices of the past, Brennan (William J., appointed by Ike in 1956 and became the Progressive leader of the court until his retirement in 1990) has a young but talented club. Its only loss was to SA Warren and the resume lists wins over Reagan and Marshall. In 10 games the Bears have given up 113 points, and like Vela, they have a program that is relatively new. Brennan started play in 2010, two years before Vela, but by Year Four had a powerhouse which went 15-1, scored an amazing 803 points, and was only derailed in the 2013 state championship game by Denton Guyer.
The Bears won 39 times in three seasons from 2012 to 2014 and though the pace has cooled somewhat since, the program has gone two-deep the past four seasons, losing to Austin Westlake in 2018 and 2019 after having been knocked out by Cibolo Steele three times from 2014 to 2017.
This year’s bunch has some long and rangy kids and a sophomore QB, Ashton Dubose, who is a threat via air or land. He is in fact the leading rusher with 587 yards while senior Justino Escobar has amassed 435. Senior Jalin Spells is 6-2 and has 13 receiving scores in 2020 while 5-6 soph Avron Carter averages 20.2 yards per catch.
Defense is a Bear strong suit, though it is a callow unit, with five sophomores among the seven leading tacklers. The ironic note is that Brennan has a 6-2 tight end/receiver named, of all things, Chase Campbell!
No doubt that the area matchup will be tougher for Vela than in past seasons, based on the accelerated makeup of the bracket in the unique year of COVID. While in the past the Sabes tackled Eagle Pass a few times in the second round, along with Victoria West and Laredo Alexander, this season the lead dogs come to the hunt a round early.
But based on the way the Valley’s No. 1 team has responded to challenges the past few weeks, one had better not bet against the SaberCats going up to Corpus and letting it all hang out. Heck, there was a time there when no one was quite sure if there would even be a season, remember?