June 9, 2021
By Greg Selber
As the Jags turn the page from one era to another, they embrace a new football coach, only the third since the school opened right after the turn of the century. The man following in the footsteps of Oscar Salinas and Gabe Pena was a highly successful assistant at Vela for several memorable seasons, but he’s also a guy who has ridden the head coach rails before.
Econ got their man, Van, or Sean Van de Merghel, earlier in the spring, and he has been going 100 mph from that moment on. Even though the program opted out of spring ball, the former SaberCat coach has been active, getting staff in place, visiting the middle schools, and starting the process for Jags 2021. It’s all stuff he’s done in the past as a head coach in Oregon, where he took a previously winless club and improved its win total for three seasons running and, most importantly, getting them into the playoffs.
“When I first took over there, they were in a similar situation to where we’re at right now,” said Van de Merghel, a terrific high school quarterback back in the day who went on to play college ball. “They had been 0-10, 1-9, they were struggling. I knew it wasn’t going to be different overnight, but I believed it could be done.”
Reynolds HS had averaged around 14 ppg before Van got there, and he immediately saw that the offensive potential was untapped.
“We scored around 40 points a game my first season,” he recalled, deftly pausing for the punch line. “Trouble was, we gave up about 50!”
By the time he decided to move to Texas, his program had produced the state’s No. 1 passer and receiver, and one of his athletes had set an Oregon record for catches in a game, 17.
“By the third season, we had gone 5-4, probably could have been 7-2 – we were so close in several games. But we made the playoffs while I was there and it was great for the program. I learned a lot being the head coach and after that, I was always on the lookout for a good opportunity to become one again.”
THE CHANCE ARRIVES
After successful assistant stints at several schools, at Laredo United for example, and of course Vela, Van de Merghel has found his latest opportunity.
“I guess the stars were aligned for me,” he suggested. “As this process moved along, I saw that the fit was right, the goals I have are in line with the administrators, the superintendent, etc., we’re on the same page about how to move forward. I checked all the boxes I had on so many things regarding the job, and everyone involved did the same.”
Getting a job can be a time-consuming, difficult proposition, and then the next work really begins. The newest boss of the Orange is ready for that. And he has definite ideas about how to bring Econ back from the wilderness. The program was a playoff regular at one point during the previous decade but then experienced a steady lull that culminating in a winless trek for the COVID-marred 2020 run.
“Every program that I have seen, or been a part of, has certain goals they want to achieve,” he explained. “Up in Oregon we really focused on getting to know the kids at the lower levels, so now here, we have been out at Harwell, Memorial, every day. I think that even though we didn’t have spring, we’ve been able to start to get to know our guys. In offseason, the turnout was low at the first but now we have had about 120 kids, at some time or another.”
As the COVID phenomenon fades away, Van de Merghel has been able to begin putting into action so many lessons he’s learned, practiced, and perfected.
“I feel like coaching is about adapting, to what you have in any given situation,” he said. “Find out what your kids can excel at. Always be ready to change. People may think that Vela football has been pretty consistent the last four seasons, but the truth is that we have been different each year. One year we went two tight ends, one year we did some spread, another was more four wides, always adjusting to personnel.”
Van notes that programs, like coaches, evolve over time, saying that at Reynolds he had awesome skill guys, only an average line, so the team threw as many as 50 times in a ball game. When the personnel and abilities change, so do the tactics and strategies.
At Vela he was known as an energetic coach, properly demanding of his group, and a man who was always at the crest of the wave with X’s and O’s. He’s always been able to adjust on the fly and keep on rolling and has got some key staff members to help the Jags do just that.
“We brought in Garrett Mason to be the offensive coordinator, here’s a guy who’s played at a high level,” Van de Merghel said, and indeed, former All-Valley performer Mason went from McAllen High to the ACC as a lineman for Duke. “Our DC is a great young guy, George Villarreal, he’s coached for several college programs and I think he is a tremendous hire. Marty Hammond comes over to us from North and he brings a ton of experience, obviously. So I think we are putting together a staff of guys with energy, experience.”
The new Jag leader can also count on leaders who been there out east for some time, namely Rigo Sanchez and Cruz Gaitan.
“It’s a mix of new faces and guys who have been here,” he agreed. “The guys who have been here, they really know the kids already, and they connect well in that respect. A guy like Cruz brings tough love, which is perfect, and Rigo, he was an All-State player for this program, so we feel good about having him.”
As stated, Econ has been through some lean times lately, with just 10 wins over the past four campaigns, but they’re ready to go to work. To change it.
“The main thing is, we need to be able to work with our kids, they need to be in school if possible,” Van noted. “It looks like things might be getting back to normal for the fall, that’s what we’re hearing. To tell the truth, there is enough talent here for us to extremely competitive.
“Every time Vela played them when I was there, I saw that the Jags were tough, they played hard, never dirty, they played with class and they never gave up. There are a bunch of kids here who want to be successful and the thing is, many sports teams here are: track, cross country, soccer, basketball lately. We want to get right in on that, and make the football program successful, too. It can be done.”
Although he is quite at home with football lingo and specifics – Pro Set/Style, 21 personnel, net punt average and the like – he also knows that coaching is about more than just chalk talk. So while he and his staff are pondering and tinkering with formations, sets, and depth charts, they are also intent on mastering man management.
“I think one thing we will focus on is building men of character,” he commented. “Sure, it’s about football on a daily basis, but at the end of the day, we want to have helped our kids prepare for the world. Football comes to an end, and then what? Ideally, we have helped the guys be ready for life when they are 25, 30, and beyond. We think that the lessons they learn with us, about discipline, sacrifice, will be valuable to them when they leave school and go on in life.”
Ven de Merghel plans on doing both – skills and drills, plus learning of the other, more interpersonal variety – and he has ways of combining the two.
“We were up to Smithson Valley the other day, listening to Larry Hill,” he said, referencing one of the state’s most prominent coaches. “He’s got 28 years of data on special teams play, winning the net punt, field position, blocking kicks. Did you know that if you win special teams, all things being equal, the numbers say you might win as much as 91 percent of the games? We are going to spend more time working on things like that than most programs, we might practice a little longer, too. Teaching teams to pay more attention to details is part of what I want to do.”
The new jefe has begun to sort out personnel and match a system to it, a process that will continue through summer and into what everyone hopes will be a reasonably normal fall process. Van’s not worried about wins and losses yet, although at a certain point that will become the emphasis. “Right now, I am just excited to get this chance, it was an opportunity I was waiting for,” he reiterated. “The vision I have for this program, the hires we have made, the support from administration, well, it’s been great. They have given us what we need to get started and now it’s up to us to work our tails off. It would be good for us to have some success early in the season, it always is for a program that is in transition. Then, we have to stay healthy, be able to put our best 22 out there as often as we can … the rest will take care of itself.”