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THE HARD WAY NOW: SHOCK HOME LOSS TO LA JOYA PUTS COOGS IN WIN-OUT MODE

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October 8, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

In hindsight it was an obvious trap game Friday, a lower tier opponent as a speed bump on the road to what promised to be the biggie, two weeks out, with an ancient rival. But the fates conspired against the Cougars at home as visiting La Joya looked a different team altogether that it had thus far in ’21, pulling off an upsetting upset on North’s Homecoming night. 

The 24-21 shocker dropped North to 1-4 in District 31-6A and in dire shape as far as the playoffs are concerned. All of a sudden the Coogs find their path to success considerably more rocky, and will have to win out to nab a chance, starting with the Oct. 22 clash with EHS.

The Coyotes had something to do with the surprise at Richard R. Flores Stadium, make no mistake there. Having won once in five contests coming in (against a Kingsville team with just one victory in 2021) and getting outscored 205 to 60, La Joya obviously benefited from a bye week, executing its wing/slot option offense very well and coming from behind twice in the second half, including a last-ditch drive that produced a crazy touchdown pass (at least three different players touched the ping pong ball, the last a Coyote) with 18 seconds left in the game. They ran their attack consistently, mixing dive, QB keep and occasional pitch with aplomb, getting excellent blocking and keeping the North defense off balance and on its heels. La Joya gained 284 yards to 264 for the Coogs and penalties – especially late in the game – were killers for the Old Gold.

The last-second victory for La Joya was its first against North in recent times following four straight defeats by an aggregate score of 168 to 41 – the two faced off 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013. Last season the Coyotes did not compete against anyone, and it showed during the rusty early stages of the season. But Friday they seemed to put it all together for the first time.

The final stroke came after the foes had played tennis with fumbles midway through the second half, and when North got a 4th-and-6 bomb TD of 27 yards from Evan Medrano to Jose Soares with 2:43 left, it looked like the Coogs were going to dodge a bullet. But on the final drive of the action, North was guilty of two personal foul calls, both on third and long, that cooked the collective goose. The Coyotes sailed a long pass down to the 7 and then as time was about to die, they went for broke from the 5 on fourth and ballgame, getting a miraculous catch in the end zone which elicited a mighty roar of triumph from the sideline and gaggle of redclad fans that had come east.

For North, which had been shut out by Pharr North in its last outing, this was one was devastating, because the program was looking forward to rising to .500 in district with positive results against La Joya and then EHS. The Bobcats, 3-2 in league and currently fourth in the standings, will get a shot at these same resurgent Coyotes next and if Friday is any metric, this is an improved contingent that has finally figured it out. Not Lincoln.

WAITING FOR GODOT

Homecoming night dawned with ample reason for optimism despite the losing streak, and North made its presence felt beforehand with some of the most gigantic mums ever seen in the state of Texas. The only thing bigger than the gargantuan mums were the two La Joya kickers, who must have been about 550 pounds worth, together. Coach Damian Gonzalez was interested in seeing how his North team would respond to the grind of a long season, commenting before the kick that he wanted revamped mental and emotional toughness from the Coogs so they could salt away the day and get ready for the Bobcats.

On the first North drive, Mark Hernandez ran well for 32 yards on five carries but the Coogs were stopped on downs at the Coyote 45; two flags on the drive did not help. The Coyotes then drove for a field goal, showing their refined offensive attack replete with a darting QB, a hard running fullback, and a quick wingback, all moving this way and that behind pulling linemen who by the way seemed to be just ahead of the snap count all night. They were never disciplined for it, so they must just be that quick.

Anyway, North answered with a smart 68-yard drive in 11 plays to take a 7-3 lead in the second period, as this time it was Chris Barrera toting the load, nine times for 50 yards as the Coogs drove holes open and advanced to the end zone. Barrera pounded in from the 1 behind blocks from H-back Jean Carlo Reyes and OL Jose Zuniga, after Medrano had fueled the march with a 19-yard run on the scramble.

When La Joya got its next chance, burly Sam Cerda was ready with a tackle for loss, and he was an absolute bear Friday with a game-high 15 tackles. Linebacker mate Eduardo Molina also had a fine effort with a dozen stops.

Given the ball back, the North O cruised down into the Red Zone with some sharp runs by Ulysses Melendez, but fumbled at the 16, whereupon La Joya motored down to the North 22 as the half waned, missing a 39-yard field goal with 0:29 left. A low-scoring half was done with the home side thinking it should be up, 14-3 or more. That was just the beginning, though, of the surprises.

STILL WAITING

The second half began as had the first, with the Coogs having the courage to go for it on fourth and short but again not being able to convert. The Coyotes again took advantage, attacking the pondering North defense and going 55 yards in eight plays to take the lead, 10-7. Sophomore end Angel Rodriguez of North had some great moments on the series, but now North was behind. What to do.

Here, it got wild, as Medrano (14 of 19, 121 yards) was sacked twice, and the Coogs found themselves pinned deep. Hernandez was the hero of the moment with a terrific punt that went 40 yards in the air from the 8 and bounced another 24 to get his team some breathing room, to say the least. The 64-yard punt was one of the longest North has had since the days of the howitzer shots of Randy Ramirez.

And then the turning point seemed to occur as safety Gio Gonzalez came up with a fumble at the La Joya 35, and North started from the 20 thanks to a personal foul call on the turnover. In two plays it was 14-10, Coogs with Medrano finding Marco Guerrero (four receptions Friday, having a productive season) from 15 yards out at 2:49 of the third.

Now surely the favored squad would pull away, nodding at the underdog for its pesky showing but heading on down the street to the Rivalry Game.

La Joya kept slugging, however and broke off a big keeper from its speedy little QB, for 31 yards. Every time the Coogs focused on him, he gave it inside or pitched; when the D flowed to the outside, bam came the dive. It just wasn’t a satisfactory night of read-and-react. Luckily, that defensive unit now came up to snuff with a fumble, Eduardo Gonzalez forcing and recovering himself.

But just as the Old Gold prepared to go up by two scores, Medrano was knocked out after a sack and the Coogs then fumbled it away again, leading to a La Joya go-ahead drive of 55 yards. With little more than seven minutes left, the Coyotes indeed pulled ascendant, 17-14.

Then the two exchanged fumbles and the crowds were buffeted by events, high as a kite, low as the ocean floor. The Coogs coughed it up near midfield but shortly thereafter, Cerda knocked it loose from a redclad and Ed Gonzalez again was quickest to it.

On a key stretch of the night, Medrano’s group faced a fourth and 6 at the La Joya 27. He faked a slip screen to a wideout while slot Soares slipped around the outside and down field on a wheel-type route, though that’s usually associated with a back. By any definition, it was a fantastic clutch snap, Soares hauling in the touchdown at 2:43. This was the final straw for La Joya, one thought, the end of a valiant effort against a superior ball club.

No, sadly, no.

Federico Cappadona and Co. obliterated the kick return man, but soon the Coyotes were granted new life on the personal foul calls previously parsed, ushering in the aforementioned, arching spiral that traveled 26 yards to the Coog 17. North broke up a third-down ball, and it was very nearly a game-winning INT, but not. Then the upstarts from the west completed their unlikely Friday night with a final desperate pass which ricocheted quickly off two, the La Joya end finding the ball in his hands as he neared the right sideline in the end zone.

Luck? Hard to call. Easy to say: a crusher for North.

But one has to be happy for the Coyotes even though … they went nuts over there and deserved to, truthfully. Joy is joy, although …

The Coogs got one last hurrah, throwing a pass for a first down and reaching the LJ 42 with one arrow left in the quiver. Medrano heaved one into the end zone where three Coyotes and two Cougars converged. As Soares appeared to have a chance at it, one of the enemy characters clipped it out of his grasp. The upset was reality.

Even in defeat, North had its share of worthy performers, such as Reyes, who ripped off a 16-yard gain in the third to go with his hard-hitting blocks. Jahir Rodriguez returned from injury and snared three passes as he works his way back to 100 percent fitness. With the defense down two key guys (Orlando Gonzales and Dan Rodriguez sat out with injuries), Cerda, two of three remaining Gonzalez brothers, and Molina all turned in good work. Cappadona made 11 tackles and defensed two passes while fireplug tackle Isaiah Cepeda was exceptionally active inside. Senior Trebor Acuna, Homecoming King by the way, slammed several runners to the turf from his tackle slot.

But in the end, North suffered three turnovers and committed penalties at the wrong time; the Coogs were whistled eight times for 75 yards (seemed like more) but it wasn’t necessarily the number, more the timing of the mistakes.

Now for the hard part. The stunning loss means that this crew must defeat EHS, P-SJ-A, and Lincoln in succession to reach four 31-6A wins; in the past that has been enough for most any club in an 8-team league to be able to get into the Dance. Now, with nine conbatants, and eight district tries, it might take five. Still, one can plausibly see it happening for the Coogs in ’21, but they will definitely need some help. With Vela, Mission, and Pharr North looking like veritable locks to make it (but not guaranteed, technically), that means one spot is likely up for grabs between the Bobcats and Bears, first off, and the 1-win trio of North, Econ, and La Joya.

Many strange twists and bends in the boulevard lie ahead: remember that October may end with Halloween, but tricks and treats can often arrive long before the pumpkin patches pop. This one was most assuredly not a treat for the home side. Is there an 11th hour treat in the offing?

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