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READY FOR THE GAUNTLET: VAN DE MERGHEL’S JAGS FACE MISSION NEXT, VELA AND RAIDERS ON THE HORIZON

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October 12, 2021

By Greg Selber

In the old days one used to see the word “idle” next to a college football team’s name in the sports page, if they didn’t have a game scheduled. As in “TCU is idle this week.”

The bye week is what they call it now and there is nothing “off” or “idle” about, as during it, coach and staff try to get creative in finding the balance between 1 Ten days of live hitting, Bull in the Ring, Oklahoma drills and the like ands 2 Taking too much of a siesta, losing contact with the kids and altering their continuity with each other. It is a delicate dance to do. The fact is, you play a ball game on Thursday or Friday, lift and watch film on Friday or Saturday and then … what? With no game scheduled for the coming week, it’s time to do some planning.

Over at Econ, Coach Sean Van de Merghel has experienced the phenomenon up close and personal recently, as his Jags followed a 19-9 win against Juarez-Lincoln Sept. 30 with the bye week.

“We got some good work in, we practiced obviously, but we also wanted to take it easy on our boys a bit,” he said Monday night, as the team was getting set for a Friday contest at Valley View versus Mission. “We did our practices Monday through Wednesday and then we had some fun. Thursday was more about motivation and then Friday we had some competitions. You have to let kids rest a little during the season and the bye week allows you to do that.”

While the Jags are still intent on nudging their way up the standings – they stand 1-3 in 31-6A, 2-4 overall right now – Van de Merghel wants to make sure the program priorities are in order.

“We sometimes take a step back and remember, hey, this is supposed to be fun, too,” he explained. “Regardless of wins and losses, we all want to enjoy being out there, and I think you can do both, be competitive and still make the game, being part of a team, plenty of fun as well.”

Now that the interim is over, the coach his staff are working toward the clash with the Eagles, who have  been up and down at times but are prominent in the standings at 4-1, their only loop loss having come against EHS.

“We have our hands full with Mission, it’s a solid team,” Van de Merghel said. “We are going to have to play our best, be better than we have been, to give ourselves a chance. We’re confident in the game plan that we’re developing for Friday; now we just have to execute and we’ll have a shot.”

Econ has had to chop and change some things since the season began, as injuries have taken their toll on the defensive side of the ball, especially up front. Though they’ve had to make personnel changes to plug some holes, the coach is happy with the way the kids have responded.

“Number one, from the beninning here we have been trying to initiate a change in attitude, and with that we have been pretty successful I think,” said the former Vela assistant. “That’s the buy-in part of it, and these guys have done a good job of it; the kids we have are doing everything we expect of them, and they really want to show what they can do the rest of the year.”

And there are some Jags who have stood out in terms of commitment and leadership, on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Van de Merghel lauded senior Javier Medellin for his effort and production in 2021.

“There’s a guy who shows up every day ready to work, he busts his tail every minute, practice and games,” he said of the two-sport star who plays both ways at times and also handles kicking/punting chores. “And he’s the type of kid who always wants more, he is never just satisfied with himself or the team, he always wants to more. I could use five of that guy.”

And that goes for quarterback M.J. Barrientos, who has returned to football after a long absence and has begun to get his sea legs under him.

“The thing about him is, he is such a good kid, always ‘yes sir, no sir,’ and we have tried to keep him healthy,” Van de Merghel said. “For example, we would love to run him 20 times a game, he’s such a good athlete. But we need to make sure he doesn’t get hurt, because we’ve got the gauntlet coming up.”

Van de Merghel’s bunch goes from the Mission game into bouts with Vela and Pharr North, a three-week span against the top trio in the league before the finale against La Joya. If the Orange is going to be competitive, it will take Medellin and Barrientos at their best. And continued performance from the unsung offensive line.

“It’s hard to name one guy who has been the best,” he said of his trench contingent. “I feel like every one of those kids has done very well really, and they are facing a loaded box most of the time, sometimes seven or eight guys right there because teams know we want to establish the run. If they do their job, we can move the ball, and you know, there’s a lot of pressure on that group. We’re pleased with how they’ve held up.”

The Jags, as has been their pattern since the program began, are making good use of the tight ends, and this year’s duo, juniors Vicente Aguirre and Uriel Gamez, have been hard-nosed blockers from the opening week. They set up solid runs from the backs with physical handling of the enemy frontliners.

“And defensively, same thing, as our linebackers have been able to make some plays this year, mainly because of the run stoppers,” the coach said. “We tell those down linemen that they may not get their names in the paper much, but when they plug gaps, they allow our linebackers to come up and make tackles, they’re very important in that respect.”

In 2021, Alexis Rodriguez, a converted offensive lineman, had distinguished himself with quickness up front, using his wheels to overcome a relative lack of size. Van de Merghel also praised the efforts of line coach Michael Maynez, saying there’s no better d-line hand in the Valley.

“He’s a guy who brings his hard hat every day,” he stressed. “And he’s done a tremendous job with his group, especially considering all the injury issues we’ve had there.”

Van de Merghel has begun to get the buy-in – even in a difficult season that hasn’t gone quite like everyone expected – and has shown himself to be an expert motivator.

“I tell our guys, hey, we should have beaten Roma, so forget about the records,” he noted. “we’re 2-4 and yet I feel like we are a 3-3 team and that’s not bad at all. And I think they believe it, too, they know we have some talent and potential and this week we get the chance to go out there and execute, hang tough, and give ourselves a chance to be successful.

“As I always say, forget the scoreboard, just play hard and see what happens. Truth is, if we block better than them and tackle better, those two things, we definitely will have a shot.”

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