September 2, 2021

By Greg Selber

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Harlingen. Shudder.

The name has always been guaranteed to send locals into worry mode, and in the world of high school football – including upstate – folks know what the name represents. Extended excellence, as in 40 playoff wins, second to Port Isabel among RGV schools, 17 seasons of 10 or more victories, and many other statistical accolades. Harlingen, PI, Donna, and P-SJ-A are the only border bands to win a third round postseason contest more than once, the Cards having done so in 1989 and then again in 2011, when they set a Valley record with 709 points, or more than some teams can manage to push across in three or four seasons. Nobody down here has won as many games and in such devastating fashion.

Locally, there is more to it than the litany of great feats, beyond the stretch from 2008-11 when the Cards went 47-6, mauling everyone in the path. For Edinburg, mentioning Harlingen always comes back to Eddie Perkins, the lucky fellow who executed a long catch-and-run play against the Bobcats in bi-district 1988, leading to a last-second field goal and an improbable two-point Cardinal win. The two split their other two postseason encounters, in 2000 (revenge) and 2005. Since then, Harlingen under Manny Gomez has defeated Econ twice, North once in the playoffs.

So Thursday wasn’t just a great non-district tune-up for two potentially fine teams, though it was. It wasn’t just a chance to pack a big crowd into Richard R. Flores Stadium for a night of fireworks that would leave the throngs decidedly hoarse. It was about legacy and history because when the Redbirds came a-callin’ Thursday, they would meet Vela.

And Vela? Vela wants what Harlingen has had, plain and simple.

The Cards are at the top of the all-time local list in winning percentage, a smidge ahead of PI at 62 percent, with Donna, Pharr North (!) and Edcouch-Elsa rounding out the top five among programs that have played more than 100 lifetime games. Dudes who have barely heard of the Valley, thinking that there’s nothing south of San Antonio but the checkpoint, South Padre Island and then Mexico, they’ve heard of these football teams.

Some would argue, compellingly, that in recent times, the SaberCats have added their name to that short list of somebodies, vis a vis the rest of the state, as their hoops team has been to state, their baseball group has competed against many of the best nines in the region, and so on. The truth is, the Vela winning percentage in football since 2012 is far and away the best: the Sabes have won 74 percent of their matches, have been ranked No. 1 at some point in each of the past four seasons, and are plainly staking their claim to the title of new RGV king.

Thursday was part of that climb to the top. Combating Harlingen, besides offering a serious diagnostic test for coach John Campbell and his team, would assist in further establishing the program bona fides when it comes to long-term reputation. Every fan in the stands for this one will be long gone before the Sabes can get within sniffing distance of 40 career playoff wins, it’s obvious. But when one talks about who’s the best in border ball, which people do more than one might imagine, a victory against the Originals – combined with the amazing win in bi-district 2019, when Vela came from two scores back not once but twice, on the road at that, to defeat the Cards – would be an unassailable talking point heading forward.

So it was like this: bragging rights on the line against a program that has made a tradition out of whipping every local from Brownsville to La Joya and back. And many Corpus and Laredo teams, too, plus the occasional SA/Austin school.

The coaches tried to focus on the game and not on the history, but it (the legacy) was hanging over the stadium like a feint but mystical cloud of destiny, enhancing the scene with an extra little hint of magic.

And yet, all the pre-fight hype about the Clash of the Titans dissipated relatively early on, as the Sabes came out and thoroughly outplayed the visitor in every aspect of the game, cruising to a resounding 30-3 result and seldom being truly challenged at all. A bit of an anticlimax to be sure, but nonetheless a pleasing situation for the Blue and Black crowd, a distressing denouement for the thousand or so Redbird rooters who made the trip over. Limiting the Cards to 229 total yards and amassing 385 of their own, the Sabes looked like a real No. 1 club. Despite a few glitches in the machine from time to time, Vela outhit a hitter’s program, looked infinitely more athletic – especially on the lines – and generally had its way with the proud dynasty and its equally intimidating coach, Gomez having won shares of 10 league titles in his 14 previous seasons at the helm of his alma mater.

It wasn’t just that Vela beat Harlingen Thursday; it was that the Sabes dogged the Cards. And that just isn’t supposed to happen, based on the dusty annals of the past 100-plus seasons. But it did. Ngl, they punished ‘em.


It happened fast, as all surprises tend to. Grabbing early field position with a defensive stand, Campbell’s kids struck fast, with a quick flip from Chase Campbell out to the wing, where P.J. Rivera did his business. His business in 2021 appears to be scoring touchdowns, which he did four times last week in the walloping of another very good Valley contingent, McAllen Memorial. Note: Max Preps is one of the best inventions since the hula hoop, but for a few days it had Memorial having won, 6-0. For the record it still records David Keith as the Vela football coach in 2017, but whatever, no perfect world.

Anyway, P.J. Hello, somebody lifted like a madman over the summer, and he wears No. 1. Aesthetically yoked and yet still quick as a cat, Rivera Kyrie’d the cornerback out left and darted into the end zone for a 17-yard TD less than three minutes in. Vela has been an offensive powerhouse for the past several seasons, we know that, averaging nearly 40 points per game, notching 602 in 2015 (Michael Salinas as coach) and 556 in 2017 (Campbell). And here the Sabes had a quick seven, real quick actually. What next …

Last week the Sabes allowed a measly 121 yards to Memorial, and its fast-footed defensive gang could be the best the program has ever had (11.5 ppg allowed in 2018, if you wonder). The ‘21 unit now came on, Harlingen sputtering/gasping for air, looking slow and strangely disoriented. Came an ill-fated pass to the left flat, which Justin Navarro ran onto for the pick, setting Campbell’s crew up at the Card 35 at 8:49.

Vela reached a third and six, which morphed into third and one after a rattled Harlingen defense lurched offside. But the glitches. Remember, its Week Two, and there are always going to be hang-ups so early. The Sabes were stopped on downs at the 27, a huge missed chance and at this stage, with everyone assuming it would be the frantic and monumental one-score nail-biter promised for weeks, Vela was ruing the moment it could not cash in on the turnover.

Gomez’ group got untracked somewhat after that, marching to four first downs with its big line and oddly big backs starting to physically assert. But just as the skies seemed to open for the veteran, there was Jake Dufner, the junior smasher on the Vela d-line. He got to a fumble and claimed it as his own, stomping the momentum into the turf right then and there, hurtling off the field like a crazed Viking off Newfoundland. The snap had come inside the Red Zone, the fumble came into Dufner war mitts at the 21, and Vela had shrugged off a problem. If they had failed to convert the turnover and then allowed the tying touchdown, it would have been game on.

And still, though Vela romped downfield well enough after the fumble, using Rivera and Bobby Garcia in the wildcat formation at times to supplement the cannon-armed senior slinger Campbell, the system experienced another outage. Midway through the second period, the drive bogged down after a holding penalty, necessitating the appearance of senior kicker Job Juarez, who banged a field goal through the north end zone uprights from 26 yards out, handing Vela a 10-0 lead. Not a fail, but not seven. Could have been 21-0 at this point.

The defense went back to work, with corner Matt Luna holding forth in the secondary and Vela’s fine linebackers roaming and ripping from the midsection. Harlingen was again forced to give it up, via punt, and Vela quickly pounced. A quick burst from Rivera for 18 yards – backfield mate Teddy Galvan had produced a 32-yard scamper in the first and would end with 100 yards – led to a super play from Campbell, the QB.

Fact. Chase has long waited his turn behind the recently graduated A.J. Sotelo, and it has been at times a tough muster for him. There’s never been any question about his ability, it was just the way the cards were dealt that made him the best backup in the Valley, bar none. Now the strapping senior is getting his time to shine, and against Harlingen he was damn good. Outside of an occasional clock management lesson, one which every new QB has to absorb, Campbell was top flight, throwing for four scores against the Cards. The second came with less than four minutes to go in the half, and frankly, even the lady who makes tacos at Stripes might have had a shot at this one. Justin Vega, on his way to nine catches for 95 yards, was so open that, well, he was in his own zip code, and hauled in a perfect 47-yard toss from Campbell to make it 16-0. And the Harlingen safety?

Most faces in the stands still refused to believe that it was going to be this easy, on this night, against this opponent. But it started to seem at least possible that Vela was vastly the superior squad. Harlingen trundled down at the close of the second period for a field goal, beating the halftime whistle to finally get on the board. But the Cards had not performed like a Harlingen team generally does. And that was a shock, really.


For everyone expecting to see a pitched battle of desperate and heroic proportions, as in the 2019 classic at Boggus (top 10 games ever, says Doc), well, it just wasn’t happening. Vela throttled through a masterful drive to start the third quarter, converting a third-down play and then doing it again. Campbell, who was 13 of 19 and ran four times for 21 solid yards, made a terrific sidearm sling to nail a receiver on a shallow crossing route, right to left (back across his body) and then he showed what he’s made of, which is quality. Dropping back on third and nine from the Harlingen 39, Campbell was nudged out of the pocket, stepped up and began heading laterally, left. Just when he needed to, however, the 6-2 signal-caller caught sight of a shadow floating free and easy in the middle, coming from the right. It was junior Carlos Tamez, jez beggin’ for the ball. He got it, perfectly placed and the gaping chasm of opportunity that was the deep middle all night had yielded its fruits at last.

Vela up 23-0 and now Dufner (nine tackles, they ran away from him in the first half but he kept running them down anyway, chase speed) and linemate Joshua Gallegos keyed a three and out. Those two horses, joined by the crafty vet Nilson Garcia, makes for a fast and physical front group that ran circles around the somewhat ponderous Card line. With Ryan Rodriguez and Ian Nova, experienced hands on deck, the linebacking corps is intact. Joshua Garcia, seasoned, steady always, and Navarro, the playmaker, lead the secondary. Along with Luna, of course. The younger brother of former program leader Eddie Luna (who made a sharp grid showing at Trinity after high school) is a hitter, a hustler, and a workout warrior. He has already contributed what is a strong candidate for Tackle of the Year against Memorial (Old School full body block and midair acrobatics; a must-see vid). Had nine sticks Thursday.

It became done and dusted at 30-3, as after Galvan’s TD was called back by flag, Campbell registered again, finding Rivera with a 27-yard scoring ball at 3:44 of the third. Try and recall a Valley quarterback with a more powerful arm than Chase. Yo, holla back to me, gotta go.

With Dufner and Friends raging all over the field, what was left of the Cardinal resolve melted away into the late summer evening, though in the fourth, Vela actually had to punt a few times, imagine. The teams exchanged interceptions, Navarro grabbing his second, and the rest was just slow gravy, the Card fans filing out dejectedly/the Vela crowd buzzing with delight.

This was one for the ages, a huge performance against a tremendous opponent, and though it was just non-district, just one game, it does augur well in several respects.

The Sabes now head into 31-6A knowing they have pummeled two of the area’s best in Harlingen and Memorial. And they will need to keep that mojo strong because Friday’s road game at Pharr North, who clobbered Edcouch bad Thursday, should be another moment of truth.

And the history. No one can gainsay the success that Harlingen has had through the years, or the talent and charisma of its coach, the Hit Man himself, Gomez. They numbers speak for themselves. But in terms of the old axiom, To Be The Best, You Have to Beat the Best, let’s just say that these days, when the football wags want to hang out, break bread and bend some ears in speaking of the top programs in the land … if they don’t start with Vela, front and center in the convo, they’d better just go on back home to mama.


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