October 1, 2021 [updated]
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
There was ample buzz heading into Friday’s Rivalry Game between Old and New Cats, banter in person and otherwise, and the EHS fans made sure to hang a sign up on the railing that read “Coach Vela Wore Red.” It had to be one of the biggest crowds in the Four School Era, and that made everyone more fired up. And happy, which matters.
The reference to city treasure Robert Vela is obvious in these parts, and along with the clever employment of history and memory, the Bobcats felt that they might just have a chance to slow down the Vela juggernaut. After all they’d won three straight coming in and were tied at the top of the 31-6A standings with the SaberCats.
And for one loud and terrific quarter, it was indeed a battle of title contenders, each driving the length of the field for a score.
But after Rolando Abrego’s death-defying running show netted the tying TD, Vela went to work in disabusing its rival of the notion that an upset was a possibility. After an electric 35-yard kickoff return by Ryan Clough, senior Chase Campbell punctured the EHS balloon with a fantastic 39-yard touchdown pass to classmate P.J. Rivera, and in 18 seconds, Vela had gone from tied to ahead. They struck almost as fast as the lightning that had delayed the start of the match by 30 minutes.
The Sabes were to add 10 points in the second period, 24 after the break on the way to a 48-7 victory and a 4-0 record in District 31-6A (6-0 overall). EHS, which dropped to 3-1, 3-3, had a few chances to stave off the blowout in the second period but could not get back into the end zone before the break. He who hesitates is lost.
Despite a game effort and some good hard licks given, the ‘Cats were outclassed, plain and simple, but can still point toward the playoffs. It may come down to the North game in two weeks, by the way, after the Cougars were blanked by Pharr North Friday to fall to 1-3 in league play.
Vela has now beaten the ‘Cats seven times in a row, never scoring fewer than 42 points or allowing more than 21 in the streak, but this one was entertaining for at least a half, with the underdog brawling for all it was worth.
Campbell was flat flawless, completing 12 of 14 passes for 207 yards, tossing four TDs for the second game in a row. He also set the tone for the night on the second play from scrimmage, taking off with the football and putting his head down, blasting a tackler onto his back to highlight a 10-yard gain. There was method to his sudden running madness.
“There was a lot of talk this week, back and forth, on Twitter,” said the dashing slinger. “And people were saying this and that, they were going to beat us, whatever. So, I guess I just wanted to let them know the way it was going to be. We were going to execute, and we were going to dominate.”
Vela coach John Campbell has been bringing the new starter along with perfect pacing this season, letting him manage a great ground game as he learns the signal-caller ropes and gradually grows into the role after many seasons watching program stalwart A.J. Sotelo run the attack.
“People have to remember, this is only Chase’s sixth varsity ball game and that’s not a lot,” said the coach. “But he has all the ability in the world and the past few weeks, he’s really started to show what he can do: he’s seeing the reads, seeing the play develop, he knows what’s there, etc., and I think the game is really slowing down for him nicely.”
Examples of Campbell the QB’s progression were legion Friday, as he continually made the right throws in the proper place, starting with a big third down sideline ball to Rivera that kept the opening drive alive. That initial march took six minutes and finished with Rivera scooting in from the 5. The bomb to Rivera was a typical killer toss from Campbell but more impressive were two later offerings, in the third period. Right off the bat, he came to the line on the Sabes’ first possession, and quickly noted one-on-one coverage against Vega, no safety. Bam, 55 yards later, Sabes in scoring range. How many times have those two practiced together in the past? No substitute for camaraderie.
Perhaps the best moment from the rifle-armed senior came next, as he dropped back and rocketed a shot to Vega on the comeback route, hitting the receiver at the pylon for a 31-7 lead at 9:31. College throw.
“Chase is getting to the point where he sees it at the line and he can check off to it,” his coach explained. “That’s something that takes time and experience to learn how to do, and we’re very pleased with the way Chase has picked up on that.”
But wait there’s more, as they say on TV … if anyone still watches TV.
Before those third period exploits just noted, another brilliant snap. EHS was desperately hanging on, down 17-7 in the second period, when Vela set off on a 73-yard drive, seeking to put this thing away once and for all. Campbell completed a third-and-7 pass to Vega (four grabs for 88 yards, in another universe the past two ball games) and then winged another third-down conversion, this time to Rivera, and it came down to third and goal.
Here, both Campbells deserve credit, because the coach rolled the dice with a beautiful call that made all us old fogies happy, a bootleg! And his QB made it work. All action went right from the 6 but wheeling around left came Campbell and a tight end, sophomore Jaxson Shupe, who hauled in a touchdown for the 24-7 lead. Fooled ya!!! Got some miles to go to catch Papa Shupe, former Bobcat ace receiver, but a good start for the youngin’. And for the Sabes, with a road game at P-SJ-A against the Bears up next.
RIVALS ALWAYS BATTLE
All the chatter about Vela should not obscure the fact that Rene Guzman’s EHS bunch came to play on Friday. Led by ferocious linebacker Jonathan Duran, who made five quick tackles, several of the bruising variety, the ‘Cats made Vela work for everything it got. And Abrego showed everyone in town that he is for real with an 88-yard night (mostly in the first half), though the passing game never got going, yielding a meager three completions. That was a problem down the line.
Still, here came the ‘Cats after Vela’s methodical drive to the end zone to start things off. Abrego whizzed through the middle for a 35-yard gain to power his squad along and the 70-yard scoring march ended with the EHS fans going bonkers. Seven-all, will this be the night? No local has beaten Vela since 2013, recall.
Alas, Vela struck quickly on the Campbell-to-Rivera connection. Meanwhile the SaberCat defense was starting to figure out Abrego, and the fine night that Ryan Rodriguez turned in at LB makes it easy to believe that Vela has the best D in the league. Too much speed, all over the field, with the pounder Rodriguez doing his part in the middle. None of the EHS backs was able to do much Friday besides the quarter, and that’s living dangerously, because lack of diversity will often do you done.
Rodriguez was hard and heavy, the line combo of Jake Dufner and Joshua Gallegos equally effective, with the latter making six stops and grabbing a fumble. At one point he chased Abrego for 30 yards until slamming him out of bounds and halfway to 281. Gallegos is coming on.
Still, EHS was up for it, and churned into range late in the half, thanks to a 39-yard pass from Abrego to senior Christian Ramirez. The shifty EHS QB ran his way closer to a touchdown that would have narrowed the gap to 10, until Nilson Garcia corralled him a yard short of a first down at the Vela 14. When the ‘Cats tried a field goal, it was partially deflected, fluttering far from the goalposts, and that was that. Vela…blocks…kicks.
The second half was all Blue and Black, as it led 31-7 after the Vega catch from 8 yards out and then stopped a Bobcat surge with a pair of sacks, by Dufner and senior Daniel Arce. Campbell then combined with Carlos Tamez for a 17-yard scoring ball at 2:40, making it 38-7.
Besides the aforementioned defenders, the secondary came up with some plays of its own, though as stated, EHS only threw 12 times, completing three. Reliable senior Joshua Garcia came up to force a fumble that Gallegos hopped on, and later Matt Luna was on the spot to palm a muffed punt at the EHS 2. He romped into the end zone for supposed six, but the rule – and it is a vexing one – is that on such a play, the ball is down at the spot of the fumble. Grrrr!
Justin Navarro, stop us if you’ve heard this before … came up with a sweet leaping interception, his fourth of the campaign.
At any rate, Vela tacked on a second field goal from senior Job Juarez, who has been outstanding in 2021, this after a second running score from Rivera. In the latter stages, the ‘Cats, who had been hitting with all they had for two periods, wore down and started to show fatigue. Arm tackles.
Nonetheless, several Red and Blue men were noteworthy. Senior Rhyan Gudino was on the warpath with a whopping 14 tackles, and safety Derrick Galindo added 12 more, same as DB mate Albert Almendariz. Of course, the skeptic points out that if your back four is making a ton of tackles, it’s a clear sign of distress. Duran finished with 10 tackles in one of his strongest performances.
The Vela honor roll: it was another balanced effort with 223 rushing yards and 207 passing. Teddy Galvan broke the 100-yard mark for the third time in 2021. Vega has now run onto three scores in two games, with 10 catches. Chase is 28 for his last 38 passing, and went the first half Friday in style, 7 for 7. The line gave the passer plenty of time to do his business, as has been the case through six contests. That line is explosive on the zone block, physical when the play call demands it. Great group.
The Sabe defense has now given up just 35 points in six wins and Friday held down an EHS running attack that had amassed 846 yards in the three-game win streak. Getting 131 against Vela is not so shabby in comparison to most, though. A big name from Friday’s special teams parade: Irbing Carrillo, who crashed down on the cover team for five stops; he seemed to turn up at the bottom of every pile, did No. 37.
Now Vela will play the Bears, who lost a wild one against Mission Friday, 42-41 to drop to 2-1 in 31-6A, tied with Pharr North. The Sabes sit alone at 4-0 while the ‘Cats and Eagles stand 3-1. That’s five, and only four get in, meaning the Cougars of North (1-3) are in a must-win situation next week against La Joya.
EHS has a huge match coming up against the North Raiders; a victory there will pretty much assure Guzman’s gang a playoff appearance. If they cannot handle the Black Shirts, then look to Oct. 22 as the Night of the Year, when EHS takes on North. Somehow, it usually comes down to that one.
Last note, on rivalries and The Line. For the most part the kids kept it cool on Friday, although once the outcome was decided there was a tenuous period during which the unrest threatened to escalate. Raise your hand if you were a bit nervous … However, order was maintained, and again, here it is: we expect some yapping and tapping in these big games, some occasional extracurriculars. And we want the teams to be amped and popping. But it must never be gratuitous, vengeful, or egotistical. Exuberance and celebration are fine, cheap shots and dirty play not. On that score, all the players showed that they understand: fight hard, legally, and bring it on every play, remembering that at the end of the day, no matter the result, we all podnahs here.