October 1, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Homecoming is supposed to be a joyous occasion, the kids dressed to the nines and waiting nervously on stage for halftime, the parents springing into action at the appointed time by jostling for position on the railing – smartphones ablaze – while the young royals resplendently march along the green.
And it also helps make the traditionally festive occasion even better if the home football team in question can provide a victory. Most coaches secretly grumble about the whole business because it offers an unneeded distraction all week at school – and also during the ball game – as there are always a few gridiron guys who come out of the lockers at the intermission to take part in the seemingly endless procession of preening.
Salutary news all around for the Jags then, as this season’s Homecoming was a smoothly run and comparatively swift affair. And the clincher: Econ won its special night contest for the first time in six seasons, 19-0 over visiting Juarez-Lincoln. Getting a healthy 92 yards rushing from senior Jose Lozoya and two touchdowns on the ground from senior M.J. Barrientos (part of the Homecoming gang), the Jags broke a 4-game losing streak with a shutout, as old/newcomer Rolando Moreno paced the defensive effort with nine tackles, a fumble recovery, and an interception.
At first it was difficult to ID Moreno, for several reasons. One is that he is better known as a point guard on the school’s basketball team, teaming with Barrientos. Another is that he hasn’t played the grid game since freshman year. And finally, after getting 18 inches of a famous mane shorn off recently, he cuts quite a contrast to the floppy locked fellow we’ve gotten used to seeing hustle around the hoops court.
“I quit playing after freshman year, but this year I wanted to come back out have some fun with my friends,” said Moreno, who came up from his Sam linebacker spot to wreak havoc on the Huskies Thursday, leading a defensive unit that allowed just three first downs and 49 total yards to the 0-5 La Joya outfit. “This is my last year and I have pride in my school, and really, football was originally my No. 1 sport.”
For his part, winning coach Sean Van de Merghel was glad to welcome the hard hitter back into the fold.
“He came to us a couple of weeks ago and asked what he had to do get back in, and I thought he was joking at first,” said the first-year mentor, whose team improved to 1-3 in District 31-6A and 2-3 overall. “But he said, ‘No, coach, I want to help,’ and so I was like, OK, go in and get your stuff and we’ll see. And tonight he did a great job, the defense overall did very well.”
It’s been a trying first run for the new coach and his club, as the Jags registered a win in Week One over P-SJ-A Southwest but then hit a skid of four losses.
“It’s been tough, frustrating at times, but we knew it was going to be a challenge,” said Van de Merghel, who came over to the east side from Vela, where he was OC for four seasons. “But we are seeing who is committed to trying, working, playing hard, and though we have lost some guys along the way, I think we have a core of players who want to be here and are doing their job every day.”
The Jags have a mantra in 2021, The Man in The Arena, which dates to a Teddy Roosevelt speech of 1910 and whose main theme can be generically parsed as: don’t sweat the critics, they aren’t playing.
Van de Merghel explained that it means the team is not worrying about things it cannot control.
“All we are concentrating on is ourselves, we play hard, and we aren’t really that concerned with other teams or the scoreboard, or what people say or think about us,” he said. “If we play hard, good things can happen. We have a lot of inexperienced kids; some haven’t played in a few years. In fact, we have just 11 kids who played last season, think about that for a second. But we’re building, and we’re learning, and all I ask from all of them is that they give it all they have. We want them to believe in each other and just play hard, period.”
GOT TO HAVE IT
This evening presented a golden chance to get back on track, against a foe that will most likely end up in the league cellar when all is said and done. But the Jags, having suffered through four defeats and surrendering 185 points in the process, weren’t counting any chickens at the start.
Lincoln dashed off a 20-yard run on its first possession, but the Jags soon forced a punt behind the charge of Moreno and junior Tim Plata, who combined for a tackle-for-loss on third down. With Lozoya churning well behind the work of the Orange line, Van de Merghel’s offense advanced to the Husky 8 before bogging down. Here, a high snap on the field goal attempt led to a miss at 0:18 of the first. Blown opportunity there. But an opportunity earned.
Plata then made two hits on a Husky possession to force a punt though Econ could not muster any momentum; for the game the home 11 would collect a mediocre 179 total yards, all on the ground.
But after Plata broke through for a second quarter sack – set up by a smashing drive into the backfield by tackle Julio Cruz – the O got going. Lozoya gashed for 15 yards and then 8 on a quick drive that began at the Lincoln 32 and came fourth and goal at the 3. Barrientos kept for the all-important play and found scant resistance on a 3-yard TD burst at 1:22 of the half; unfortunately, the PAT was no good, leaving the score at 6-0 for the break. And Homecoming.
In attempting to record their fifth victory over Lincoln in five lifetime tries, the Jags moved the ball well after a great third period kickoff return from senior Javier Medellin, who once again was a prominent cast member of the Econ football drama. The club then got inside the Red Zone on a slashing carry by Medellin to the 9, but it was nullified by penalty. It should be noted that Van de Merghel’s crew executed a pretty clean ball game from the flag standpoint.
The big break of the half came at 4:45 of the third when DB Josue Arredondo came up with a fumble at the enemy 23, leading to a marvelous touchdown from Medellin on the very next sequence. Finding himself stonewalled near the line of scrimmage, the soccer star made a deke and a jink, powered through a pair of would-be tacklers, and tightroped down the left sideline for six, giving Econ a 13-0 advantage at 4:46. Play of the Game there.
Later in the period, Moreno showed his moxie with a mad rush outside to corral a Lincoln receiver in the flat, for no gain. The foe kicked away but the Jags again did not scratch with any success. The final margin was assured when corner Raul Montemayor (six tackles, that little dude can stick) came up to force a fumble which Moreno (who else) recovered at the Lincoln 9. On the initial snap of the final period, Barrientos popped in from the 3 again, this time after faking an inside handoff, to extend the ad to 19-0 at 11:56. Later, Moreno leapt high into the calm September sky to pick off a pass and gain the unit’s third turnover, capping his triumphant return to the arena.
Van de Merghel noted his team’s improvement on defense as well as the O-line’s better job of staying with blocks longer. That enabled his “running backs by committee” approach to work well, as junior Brandon Torres had some productive carries in support of Lozoya, who had rumbled for 120 yards in a Week Two loss to Roma.
Guys like Moreno and Montemayor have been pleasant surprises, while mainstays such as Medellin and Plata continue to carry more than their share of the load for the rebuilding Orange.
“We have adjusted personnel a bit, tried to get some bodies over into the defensive mix,” the coach noted. “And tonight, Lincoln gave us some looks we weren’t prepared for, meaning we had to work at halftime to adjust. I think overall that we’re building, we’re working on the process of doing that. We have what we have, and we care about the kids we do have … and we want them to know that, and to believe in themselves, support each other all the way.
“We’re not worried about other teams, like I said, we’re just concerned with what we can do, every game from here. Changing the culture, that’s what we are doing here in the first year.”
Econ takes the bye next week after finally getting off the ziggy with a league victory. The next action will come on the road Oct. 15 against Mission.