August 26, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
The ancient philosophers opined that one can never step in the same river twice, that life is ever changing, even in minute detail, different by the dynamic second. The modern, sporting version of such a truism would surely be, you only get one shot at a successful beginning to a football season, and many times, the initial blast out of the box will help define the way the campaign will progress.
With that bit of wisdom out of the way, we turn to the North lid-lifter Thursday against P-SJ-A Memorial, which unfolded in front of a healthy bunch of Cougar rooters, so much different than the truncated, fan-scarce and cricket-sounding matches of 2020. And the Old Gold crowd was treated to an early offensive explosion that brought back memories of the past, perhaps boding well for what could be an outstanding foray for the latest North contingent.
It wasn’t just the final score, 40-14 in favor of Damian Gonzalez’ crew, although that was impressive enough. It was the way the Coogs went about their business, fired up from the get-go and producing 25 points in the first quarter alone. The rout of the Wolverines marked the 22nd time since 2004, in 177 games, that the program has scored 40 points or more, including the 60 the Coogs hung on Los Fresnos back in 2009 and the 56 they put on the board the very first time they faced crosstown rival Vela, in 2012. Then there was the 44 points against P-SJ-A managed in a 2011 loss
And 2009 is a key theme for this 2021 evening, because it was in the opener of the excellent three-deep season of ‘09 that Roy Garza’s club whipped up a 50-point night out at Rio. On that night of fireworks, a chap named Andrew Partida enjoyed the game of his life, catching four touchdown passes to key a 50-12 victory.
In 2021, the similar headline maker was Yahir Rodriguez, who duplicated the exploits of Partida by hauling in a quartet of scoring strikes from new QB Evan Medrano, ending with 112 receiving yards of the 208 that Medrano amassed on the game. Showing admirable offensive balance, the Coogs churned for 167 rushing steps against Memorial with former fullback Mark Hernandez hitting the holes fast and with certainty to rush for 94 yards.
Meanwhile a defense paved by a trio of standouts held Memorial in check for the most part, allowing 212 total yards and withstanding a bit of fatigue in the second half to salt away the pleasing result. And it was that defense, actually, that set the table for Medrano, Rodriguez and an offensive line that went all IHOP Thursday with a series of resounding pancakes along with the usual assortment of zone, shield and step blocks.
All in all, it was a perfect start for Gonzalez and the gang, looking to get back into the playoffs for the third year running.
HEY, WHAT’S UP, FRIEND?
To see so many fans in the stands was a pleasure and a privilege, from band parents to phone-linked youngsters and the occasional scout or fan from other city climes, conspicuous in their red or orange or blue. Thursday crowds have traditionally been only middling, but this one was sizeable and active; people were ready for some football, as the old country cat Hank Williams Jr. used to sing.
And right off the bat the supporters were called to account, as North rambled 59 yards in six plays, taking a 7-0 lead just three minutes in. Hernandez bolted for a 14-yard gain to aid the effort, while Chris Barrera chipped in a 12-yard romp for the score. Those two quicksters will form a potent complement to banger Jean Carlo Reyes, last year’s ground king, behind a line that wants to rival the killer units that Gonzalez once masterminded as the North line coach under the estimable Garza, now of course the city AD.
It got better in a hurry as the Coogs bulled the Memorial punt game on the next series, pushing the up-back, well … back, with a fierce rush. After the punter punted into the backside of his teammate, North’s Fabian Gonzalez was first to locate the spinning ball, at the Wolverine 11.
Promptly it was 13-0 after young Ulysses Melendez, a leggy sophomore with much upside, bolted into the North end zone at 7:10 of the first, stunning new Memorial coach Will Littleton and the PM travelers.
It continued. After the kickoff, Dan Rodriguez and Sam Cerda, ample-size, high motor linebackers who combined for 24 tackles in the opener, led another three-and-out, leading to a miserable punt that traveled all of nine yards and giving North the pigskin at the Wolve 45. Quickly, Medrano went to work, after a motion penalty, hitting Rodriguez down the left sideline. The receiver outdueled his corner opponent for the ball, deftly regained his footing after a near stumble, and turned on the jets to complete a 54-yard scoring play that caused the home side to rise and roar in unison at 4:51.
To recap, two nada series for the Wolverines, three lightning flashes for the Coogs. In a little more than seven minutes. Kaboom!
The next action was more of the same, as this time it was 270-pound senior tackle Trebor Acuna, with help from the agile Gonzalez at end, shutting down Memorial and forcing another poor punt amid much pressure, this one going 12 yards. From the 41 Medrano, who was 8 of 12 in the first half, completed two balls for satisfactory yardage while Reyes, used sparingly in preparation for next week’s road clash against RGV No. 2 Mercedes, crashed for 17 yards on two carries, auguring in – after a holding call – an 18-yard scoring toss to Rodriguez, whose perfectly executed one-two soft shoe at the right back corner of the end zone was exactly what all little kids have practiced with drama and flair in their backyard at one time or another. And yes, he’s inbounds! … touchdown!
It wasn’t just defense, led by the marauding Acuna, whose strength is matched by his surprising speed and excellent nose for the ball, or the offense with its bevy of dangerous players. The special teams were potent, particularly as stated the punt cover unit, but also the kickoff team. Richard Ruiz, the 6-foot-7 receiver who was forced into kicking duties late in the week after an ill-timed injury to a teammate, started finding the mark on extra points as time wore on, and he thrilled the faithful with one of the greatest licks one will ever see from a kicker. Looking more like a small forward than anything else, Ruiz bowed up near the 40 on one Memorial return, launching a murderous shoulder into the return man and knocking him clean onto his back. Pure death.
No one could blame Memorial for being shell-shocked, but now Littleton’s crew found some pride, grinding out a long drive that ended with a score, midway through the second quarter. If there was a weakness for North in the half it came on this march when the D surrendered two fourth-down conversions, including the pass that resulted in the TD.
Nonetheless, the Coogs were back at it again after that, taking 11 snaps and negotiating down to the Memorial 21, where on third down Medrano again found the Partida of the Day, Rodriguez grabbing a 21-yard pass to make it 32-7 just 24 seconds before the break.
As so often happens after a fantastic half, the second was just so-so, the teams exchanging touchdowns along the way. Memorial engineered a 65-yard drive in the third and North parlayed the short field it earned and enjoyed all night into a scoring saunter in the fourth, Rodriguez putting the finishing touches on a banner performance with a 19-yard TD catch from Medrano with five minutes to go.
For his part, fourth-year coach Gonzalez had come into the opener noting that it was important for North to start well, against a Memorial group going through a coaching change and having struggled through two winless seasons in a row; its last playoff appearance was in 2011.
“We scored on six of eight drives, we’ll take that for sure,” said the coach, whose bunch was outgained 144 to 105 in the second half. “We drove the ball well all night, we just got a little tired, we were dragging there for a while in the second half. That’s conditioning, and we’ll get better at that the coming week, to get ready for Mercedes.”
Gonzalez said he knew Memorial would bounce back after the early blowout, and he lauded the way his kids embraced some lessons Thursday.
“We have some guys who are getting experience, and they are learning to slow down and let the plays come to them, not try and do too much too soon,” he commented. “Right now, it’s all about being 1-0, we wanted to come out and play solid football and I believe we did that. Really excited to get this first one and start building for district.”