September 3, 2021

By Greg Selber

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The Jaguars will be annoyed at themselves, feeling they dropped a game they might have won. But they will also be buoyed by the experience, after a late comeback saw them play some superb football in the fourth period of their home opener Friday against Roma. And new coach Sean Van de Merghel spoke to this teeter totter effect after the 40-28 defeat Friday.

“The way I see it, you have two choices,” he told his kids after Econ (1-1) had thrown blows right with the Gladiators until a late second quarter series of miscues led to a 20-point halftime deficit. “You can boo-hoo-hoo and feel sorry for yourselves … or you can get back to work and get better. Which is it going to be?”

And the former Vela coach knew what the Jags would choose; later in the postgame huddle he addressed some other, more pleasing aspects of the night’s work.

“You played with a lot of heart tonight, and you showed character, you really did,” said the exuberant young mentor, who was up and down the sideline all night, churning overtime to give his team a little extra fire. “You fought from start to end and you stayed together … and you know we had our chances, we could have won this one. But when you make too many mistakes, that’s what going to happen: we lose to a team we should’ve beaten.”

Van de Merghel is just the third coach in the history of the program, which stretches back to 2000. He follows Gabe Pena, who took the Jags to four playoff trips in five seasons starting in 2012. Pena replaced EHS grad Oscar Salinas, who launched the effort back in the day and enjoyed the finest East Side season yet, an 8-win masterpiece in 2003 led by the unworldly talent that was Ryan Richardson. That season also included the only postseason victory the school can claim, by a narrow margin over powerhouse Donna.

In the abbreviated run of 2020, the Jags were winless, leading the transition from Pena to the new guy, and right away in the home opener, the Orange showed that Van de Merghel has already made a difference.

Coming off a solid road win at P-SJ-A Southwest, the Jags slugged it out with Roma, another program on the rebuild (lost to Rio Grande City in Week One) and the teams produced 34 points in the first period alone. That sort of entertainment has been missing for a few seasons around Econ, but thanks to long and thrilling runs by first Jose Lozoya and then Javier Medellin, the Jags were right in it.

Lozoya scampered 69 yards to set up the first score, a 4-yard burst from junior Brandon Torres, tying the game at 7 with 7:06 left in the first. Later, his fellow senior Medellin romped for 55 yards down to the Roma 5, setting up a Lozoya touchdown at 0:09.

The drawback was, Econ was concurrently being hoist on its own former petard, as the Gladiators were making great progress off the offense that the Jags used to run so well under Pena. The slot-T is a tricky wicket to defend, what with its constant fakes, pulling linemen, and deceptive hand and footwork. The Glad QB was a little chap with blinding speed, and the fullback was a big, strong horse that went both ways Friday, making a number of stops from LB.

Roma ran at will in the period, mixing the dive and inside trap with the quarterback keeper, and keeping the Jag defense off balanced throughout, good for three touchdowns and a 21-14 lead after what had to be one of the lengthiest quarters in the history of football, though enjoyable.

As the second got going, that defensive unit started to get its sea legs, with corners Josue Arredondo and Ulises Zuniga (like Medellin, also a standout for Sam Gonzalez’ soccer team) making plays to stop the Gladiator momentum, forcing a punt.

But Econ turned it over on the ensuing possession, leading to a 4-play TD drive from the visitor that began at the Econ 23. Thus unfolded the juncture of the night that told the final tale to come, as Roma next benefited from a fumble to take a 34-14 lead, this time only having to go 24 yards to find the end zone.

Econ stormed back into it with a 46-yard run from Medellin – who lined up as QB in the wildcat formation at times – late in the half to give Van de Merghel’s group a first and goal at the 8. Alas, they could not get in, and after being stopped on downs, had to head to the lockers down 20 and wondering what might have been. Without the two turnovers, and with the late TD that was denied, it would have been, as they say, a whole different ball game.

In the recent past, the Jags might have wilted under the pressure, but they didn’t do that Friday. Senior QB M.J. Barrientos, the basketball standout, led the squad all the way to the Red Zone to begin the third before disaster struck, a fumble which Roma fell on at the 10. From there, the Gladiators embarked on a mammoth drive of 18 plays that ended with a touchdown and a 40-14 lead. The march saw the enemy convert four third-down plays into success and ate up the lion’s share of the quarter, the period having just 23 seconds left in it by the time Roma bashed into the end zone.

Rather than hang their heads or point the finger, though, the Jags came back with a vengeance, getting into paydirt with a smashing 12-yard TD run from Barrientos, who has been slowed by a slight knee injury in the early going of ’21 but is starting to show why Van de Merghel and staff were super happy when the senior decided to return to the football field for the first time since junior high, when he was a star player.

The comeback was on, as junior Ricardo Banos then won a mad scramble for the pooched onside kick, setting the Jags up on O once again, at the Glad 46. Medellin, who led a productive run game (318 yards) with 121 yards, gained a first down with an 8-yard belt on third and 3. Then two Barrientos carries set the stage for Medellin’s 4-yard score with 4:53 to go.

Meanwhile the defense was playing very well, paced by smallish but quick tackle Alexis Rodriguez, who made a team-best 11 tackles. Fellow lineman Jose Cinco contributed seven before leaving with an injury, and the linebackers were good, too, with burly Didier Martinez and rangy junior Tim Plata combining for 15 stops. Zuniga was an aggressive force all night at one corner, coming up with 10 tackles, while former running back Fermin Hernandez had a couple of helmet-rattling stops.

After the Medellin TD that made it 40-28, the Jags could not locate the next onside kick, and the game wound down quickly after that. Econ outgained the Glads 376 to 355, but the three turnovers turned the tide, as well as the late second half drive that expired just 10 yards away. It was a game that could have, perhaps should have, gone the other way, and this fact was not lost on a disappointed but unbowed Van de Merghel afterward.

“I am proud of the way we competed, we never gave up,” he said. “We wanted two things coming in, to tackle well and to win the line of scrimmage. For the most part, I don’t think we won in the trenches, Roma was a pretty physical team and that’s something we don’t have yet. In that sense, it was sort of a bad matchup for us, and coming up, we know North is a big, physical team, so we just need to get tougher at that. But we did finish, we played well at the end, and we supported each other, which is very important.”

As he stated, Econ is next on action Friday against the Cougars, who were defeated at Mercedes Friday, 24-14, to fall to 1-1 after an opening rout of P-SJ-A Memorial. The Thursday outing at Richard R. Flores Stadium will see 0-2 EHS, which lost by just 2 down at Brownsville against Rivera Friday, against 0-2 Juarez-Lincoln, as District 31-6A play kicks off in earnest.

Before Friday’s kickoff, the loudspeaker at Flores, which has been somewhat inconsistent in the early going, blared out the strains of the 1970s Boston classic “Don’t Look Back” and that would end up being the theme, posthaste, for Econ-Roma. After two tries the Jags have shown decided improvement under their new leader. Now they just have to keep cranking it, giving the max effort, and forget about the maybes in the loss, moving on with pace and fury. As a wise man once said, if you look back too often, something might blindside you from the front. After two non-district warmups, the season basically starts now.

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