May 28, 2021

By Greg Selber

When the Cougars wound up their spring practice schedule earlier in the month, they put away the pads with the knowledge that they had gotten a head start on keeping the ball rolling. And it was nice to have a shot at spring, given last year’s developments which erased the possibility.

Coming out of the sessions, Coach Damian Gonzalez found that he has many items to be enthused about, from depth on the offensive line and leadership among his defensive trenchers to a potentially potent offensive attack. As the Coogs headed to summer conditioning and weight room duty – and continued to shine in 7-on-7 competition – the fourth-year mentor reflected on the sum total of the past several weeks of work.

“You know me, I am always going to be thinking about the o-line,” said Gonzalez, a standout center in his days with the original North edition. “We have a bunch of guys, big and strong kids who will really allow us to do the things we want. Last year, past couple really, we haven’t had as much depth, but now heck, we had 20 linemen in spring ball, and a bunch of those guys are going to see the field.”

Look for 270-pounder Jose Zuniga to be one of the prominent bell cows this season, as Gonzalez says he has trimmed down, gotten stronger, and is displaying the kind of “football mean” that the coach always covets.

“During spring he had a lot of confidence out there and we expect him to be one of the best,” Gonzalez said, adding plaudits for center Martin Barrera, heading into his second season as a starter over the ball, and rugged tackle Evan Garcia, who came well into his own during the spring.

North has long been known for its sizeable, powerful kids, and in 2021, this extends behind the line, where new quarterback Evan Medrano has waited his turn and now steps into the spotlight.

“He’s a big, strong kid, which is sort of the opposite of the guys we have had the past few years back there,” the coach explained. “Evan will be able to take the wear and tear quarterbacks go through, he was great in strength and conditioning leading into spring, and he’s really invested in this opportunity. He played last season in the playoffs against Harlingen and though he was green, he put in an admirable effort.”

The 2020 road to the postseason for the second straight campaign was paved partly by the hard running of rock-ribbed Jean Carlo Reyes, who picked up more than 400 yards a year ago and returns for his senior season gunning for more. Gonzalez is also excited about a sophomore who should see his share of carries, believing that in Ulises Melendez, he’s got a real find.

“He has all the tools, he’s pretty big and he’s the second or third fastest kid on our roster,” the coach noted. “He loves the weight room, which is always good. He kind of got overlooked last season with all the chaos of COVID but I am telling you, he can really be a great help to our offense.”

Add in top 2020 receiver Jose Suares and speedy WR prospect Jahir Rodriguez, and the offense will indeed be in high-octane mode. Gonzalez brought mastermind Oscar Campos over from EHS as the offensive coordinator to replace Marty Hammond, who joined Sean Van de Merghel’s staff at Econ, so expect some new wrinkles from the Coogs … sometimes.

“I made sure to joke with Oscar that he has to remember, I’m an offensive line guy and I want to run the ball,” Gonzalez quipped. “But I think that we can throw it this season too, we have the receivers, the line, and a QB with a strong arm.”

Looking at the other side of the ball, North lost some excellent seniors, including All-State linebacker Justin Cappadonna. Luckily, there are several key stoppers set to come back, including another Cappadonna, brother Frederico, who has some intriguing upside. He will get pointers from returner Daniel Rodriguez, among the club’s biggest hitters a year ago, while juniors Sam Cerda and Julian Gallegos got considerable snaps last year and are primed to grab starting LB slots.

“Our front seven will be pretty nasty, and now we are working on the secondary, that’s where the major graduation losses are,” Gonzalez stressed. “But we do get Gio [Gonzalez] back, and he’s a player at free safety, made first team All-District. And we have his twin brothers out here and I think they are ready: both played special teams a year ago, and we want them to get in there and play some football on defense.”

Jumping back to the d-line, the Coogs are glad to have Trebor Acuna in the mix again. The burly run-stopper has stepped up into the role of mentor as his senior year approaches.

“I get on a group chat with our d-line and have noticed how Trebor is organizing, getting kids where they need to be, and that’s very promising,” the coach said. “He’s really taken control the way a senior should, and I am proud of the way he’s been doing it.”

Along with Acuna, expect Isaiah Cepeda, a quickster who gets to the gaps and uses his hands well, to man a spot. Another will likely go to Angel Rodriguez, who did some fullback stints in 2020 and will now be at his natural position on the end.

“I think that we are more athletic than we have been in a few years, and still pretty strong and physical overall,” Gonzalez commented. “We’ve had an awesome spring, hard work, great attendance, and the guys seem to have grasped the major concepts we threw at them. I know the district will be tough, it always is, but we feel confident that we are going to be right there in the race.”

One aspect of the drill that Gonzalez has excelled at during his tenure, among others, is man management. He’s known as a player’s coach for a reason.

“One of the things I always want to know about a coach is, How does he act with the kids?” he said. “It’s not always how much you know about football; it’s got to be about the interaction with the players too. What is in their best interest? I always try to ask myself that, too. It’s very important to me.

“This spring we wanted to learn schemes, get our reps, sure, but we were really concerned with bonding, leadership, etc. And the way the kids have stepped up in 7-on-7, that indicates good things. They’ve been together a ton, made stronger ties, and I think that when the games get tough, down the stretch, that bond helps a team succeed. When you’re good friends, there’s no finger-pointing in the fourth quarter, and that’s huge.”

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