September 15, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

This one was always going to be less about the game and more about the names, because it did not take the sacred divining rod of the elders to suggest that the odds on La Joya giving Vela much of a battle were as long as the summer solstice, the endless Alaskan night.

And this is not to cast aspersions on the Coyotes at all, it’s just that as one of the handful of schools that opted out of football last season, they’re still in rekindle mode as the 2021 campaign unwinds. They’ve had their moments, have the Redclads, from the surprise upset of state-ranked San Benito in bi-district 1993 (when they wore black) to a couple of postseasons win over Harlingen (how many RGV schools can boast that?). There were two three-deep playoff trips in the 2000s before the school split into not two but three separate entities round about 2007. And it hasn’t been quite the same since out west.

That aside, Thursday promised to offer a Golden Ticket for a series of local kids who don’t often get to enjoy their strut under the Friday Night Lights. It would be a second team dream, as the SaberCats tucked away the result with a masterclass of a 27-point first period, solidifying their hold on the No. 1 spot in the Valley and cruising to 4-0 for the season with a 69-7 drubbing of 1-3 La Joya.

There was ample playing time for all, which is always a boon to a program’s spirits, giving the starters some rest and as stated, the second and third groups a chance to horn in on the loot and spoils.

One by one, the unsung Sabes claimed their share against a Coyote team that was held without a first down in the first half – without a single yard, actually – by a Vela defense that is threatening to rewrite local history books with every dominating effort. In four victories to start the year, the Sabes have allowed a miniscule 16 points, and that total speaks for itself, especially considering the quality of the opponents.

On the offensive side of the ball, this meant that guys such as Matthew Lopez and Jamal Polley would be front and center. The senior Lopez was especially fecund in the victory, dashing for a team-high 146 yards and two scores, helping the unit to 478 total yards. Vela has increased its rushing total each game this season on a linear roll, and Lopez, hitting the holes hard and with quickness, was an integral part of that. Polley, a promising sophomore, blasted six times for 36 yards to augur well a future of production, and senior Ryan Clough got the party started with a 16-yard TD run, three minutes in. With senior P.J. Rivera catching seven passes for 71 yards in the hybrid runner/receiver role he seems to have been born to play, the other backs on the roster got the chance to run wild, which they generally did. And this includes athletic junior Bobby Garcia, the baseball star, who ripped off another long run against La Joya, sailing 51 yards on a third quarter carry out of the wildcat. The feature back, Steady Teddy Galvan, was fabulous as well, churning out two touchdowns in the opening quarter, one from 58 yards out, the other from 10 on the last snap of the period. Best bevy of backs the program has had, really.

The other main force with the ball was junior Justin Navarro, who sprinted for an electric 70-yard punt return six-pointer in the first stanza, later had another TD return called back by penalty, and generally continued to reprise his Daniel Enriquez impersonation as a game-breaking character in the open field. When he touches the ball, something fun is going to happen.

As for the defense, it was the usual suspects that went to work against the overmatched Coyotes, refusing to give the visitor any room to run from the opening series. The tone was set by senior corner Matt Luna right away, as he stormed over to clobber a Coyote ball-carrier and hopped up to toss fists and dance-celebrate, leading to a three-and-out. At that stage the dulcet tones of PA man Leo Reyes could be heard, reminding the crowd that the Vela defense is ranked atop the Valley heap. No false advertising there.

After Navarro’s punt return romp made it 13-0, LB Ryan Rodriguez and DL Nilson “Tampico” Garcia led the next defensive surge, whereupon Galvan’s first score followed, and it was 20-0. Then it was Jake Dufner’s turn to swat and swagger. The junior lineman has leapt into the forefront this season as a real All-Area candidate, with great smarts, quickness, strong hands and a little proper mean that is a prerequisite for defenders. On one memorable snap in the third, he was to Superman leap over the prone building of a blocker and launch himself in a single bound into the runner for a tremendous athletic tackle. Here in the first he simply dragged a Coyote down like a rag doll to force another punt (there were nine boots in all Thursday night).

Early in the second, senior Joshua Gallegos was living the D’s dream when he hopped on a loose ball and returned it 18 yards for six and at 34-0, another superb snapshot, this from Luna. As he surveyed the scene from left corner, Luna heard a voice from the sidelines yell “He’s going inside!” The hard-hitting senior decided to come, leaving his receiver on the outside as the ball was snapped, zooming toward the line of scrimmage, laterally. When he arrived, Luna blew up the running play that had been correctly diagnosed from the coaches, and that is what happens with a veteran secondary knows what to do at the right moment and is cool enough to Just Do It. The runner’s eyes bulged out of his helmet, as if to say, wth is the corner doing here, already? Boom, baby! That’s what he doing.

This display of dominance allowed Vela to start subbing in defenders, and many of them showed flashes of skill and toughness that may earn them more playing time in time. A couple of newish guys were on the field to begin, including junior DL Gilbert Escobedo and senior DB Miguel Ibarra, and both performed ably. As the night wore on, junior Ryan Botello was to make four tackles from a linebacking spot while soph DL Alexzander Sotelo got into the act with a solid stop. Perhaps the coolest cameo came from of the trench guys late in the fray. This youngster slammed in for a major hit on a La Joya back, and immediately leapt up in a paroxysm of joy, running pell mell off the field toward a gaggle of adoring teammates on the sidelines. The play had come on first down, however and the zealous chap was instructed forthwith and feverishly on that count. With a flash he reversed field and was back into the mix, amid hilarity from his mates. Pure joy. This was a perfect encapsulation of the night, everyone got a hit of it, and it was good. You work your tail off all week, and this is the payoff, and a parable about life: strive for striving, not necessarily for the glory. The striving (journey) is the glory … but sometimes, um … it’s also cool to hear your name on the PA, oh yeah!!!

The attack was non-stop and consistent, as Coach John Campbell’s crew put up 14 points in each of the quarters after the 27-point first, climbing within range of the program record of 72, set against Brownsville Pace back in 2015. That was the year the Sabes started the slate with 142 points in two games, hanging 70 on Harlingen South directly after walloping Pace. Then there was 2017, when Vela pinned 70 against P-SJ-A, so this 69-point offering ranks fourth on the list, ahead of the 65 they got against Laredo Alexander in the area round of the 2018 playoffs, still one of the most stunning explosions on record.

Career, the Sabes have managed 50 points or more 22 times, and between 40-49 on another 29 occasions, in just nine-plus campaigns. There will be several clubs in the Valley who might struggle to get 69 points this season, actually. But the Coyotes never gave in or resorted to meanness in frustration. They will surely rebuild and regain some degree of the quality they have shown in the past, stands to reason.

But on this night, it was Vela’s show, and not just the regulars and headliners. It was the kind of game that is a feel-good deal, with parents/boosters happy to see their kids involved in prominent roles. And it makes all the hard work worth it for each and every guy. Before the game, Campbell suggested that a football season is a long slog and that sometimes he and his staff concentrate on other things than just X’s and O’s.

“It’s a scientific thing, or psychological I guess,” said the cerebral fifth-year coach. “You have to watch out because the kids only have so much to give, you can’t work them too hard and long or they’ll get fatigued over the long haul. So we try to do things to alter the routine, change it up, so that we keep the momentum.”

Campbell, having ridden many such rapids in his time, is all about the details, technical and otherwise.

“By the time you get to the playoffs, you can’t afford to have a tired team, believe me, or you’re going to pay for it,” he suggested. “So as coaches, we have to stay on top of how often we lift, how tough Mondays are, that sort of thing … always in the back of your mind is, are the kids fresh and ready, or are they wearing down? And we adjust the workouts and the schedule accordingly. We might make a practice period shorter, by a minute or two for one segment, and you’d be surprised what a difference it makes sometimes.”

That sort of nuance, as the season stretches onward, is designed to make sure the players don’t shoot and expend their collective bolt before the major battles arrive. And it means that nights like Thursday are effective for many reasons. You get everyone in the ball game and let them taste the fruits of their labor; you get the starters some rest; and you ride the wave of a 69-point smash into the meat of the schedule.

Next the Sabes have North next Friday, followed by EHS and then P-SJ-A. After that three-game junket, Campbell and his staff will have a better read on the tea leaves, with Lincoln, the Jags and Mission to finish.

Some pundits are talking up this edition of the Blue and Black as perhaps the best the school has seen and that may end up being the case. Certainly plausible. But long haul means what it seems to mean, and so the staff is plodding along, week to week, doing its thing and trying to keep the kids in the old “not too high/not too low” framework.

Here’s the thing about success: it tends to create heightened and less forgiving expectations. If you told most Valley teams that they would be able to make the playoffs and win a bi-district clash, they would be mighty happy. But for Vela, the burden of greatness hangs more thickly; the price of fame is the knowledge that your good may be great to some, but’s not great to you, yet. And it gets steeper, that hill to Valhalla, more strewn with peril as you rise. This season once again, it will be San Antonio second round, so yeah.

At this point, better to enjoy the slackening coals of the night’s victories, savor the vibe of equity in terms of playing time, and start to remind oneself that there’s a team around the corner that fancies itself a contender, an obstacle, a legitimate problem. A couple of them actually, meaning that the Sabes will be working on humility and patience, steady as she goes in the next few weeks. If a team starts to count its chickens before they hatch, they might find that down the road those chickens, metaphorically speaking, may come home to roost in less than laudatory ways.

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