October 22, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
That will be the enduring memory from Friday’s Rivalry showdown.
Shining with sweat, still pulsing with intensity yet weary with toil all the same, the North gang to a man was redeemed. And it showed by the huge, gleeful smiles. No posturing, no stage-managed, ESPN-copied movements, just real feeling. Honest, unabashed joy after a hard fought struggle ended their way. After two weeks of hearing the murmurs of shock and surprise at a loss to La Joya that had shaken the confidence of a team that had come into 2021 with a rush and was in danger of going out with nary a whimper.
They earned it, did the Cougars, with a tenuous 20-12 victory over traditional foe EHS, and now it was time to breathe. To relax, and finally, to feel good about themselves again.
Seconds after the defense had turned back the Bobcats on a last-ditch drive that had threatened to ruin the phoenix rise, Coach Damian Gonzalez and tackle Trebor Acuna had taken turns marshaling the giddy group into form for the postgame huddle, slapping each other’s back as they went. The North kids had been jumping around and pounding each other almost as hard as they had done the ‘Cats for 48 crazy minutes. It was hard to stop, this joyous celebration, this night of pride on which the program had put the stops on a slide that had reached relatively ominous proportions. But gradually, with their leaders herding them here and there – always grinning, laughing but leading – the crew came together, still buzzing with excitement and looking around at each other with obvious satisfaction.
“What have I been telling you for two weeks?” Gonzalez hollered raspily to his kids. “This was going to be a physical game, we were going to do some hitting! We wanted you to come out here and show your capability, we have known all year that you guys could do this, and tonight you did it: you dominated!”
As Gonzalez spoke, his coaches stood on the periphery, beaming. The head coach, soaked to the bone with effort, shaking with fire at what had just gone down, went through a brief summary of the events. The kids listened fervently, at times glancing around at teammates as if to say, ‘Hey, we did it, sweet!”
And they had.
“This is number one out of the way, this was our first playoff game,” Gonzalez said, knowing that in the best case scenario heading forward, his team that had been written off, buried for dead by everyone after the disturbing La Joya result, was now alive and potentially well. It will take some skill and surely some luck, but North might just get in. “You came out in a playoff atmosphere and you played playoff football,” he continued. “I want you ready to work tomorrow, because this season isn’t done yet! Every week is playoff week!”
Later, after the kids had dispersed, some still whooping and hollering, others just soberly gathering their gear and heading to the lockers, Gonzalez spoke about what he thought of the victory. He’s been under some pressure lately, to say the most, and now the Coog alum was finally getting some peace following one of the most trying stints of his career.
“We have been expecting this kind of performance all year, really,” he said, after his defense had limited EHS to 88 rushing yards, less than half its season average. “And you know me, I ain’t gonna sugarcoat it; I told the guys what I thought, about how they have played, how we have coached, everything. But tonight, they had trust and they had effort. Heck, we are bigger than them and yet we didn’t seem to get tired, we got stronger as the Bobcats seemed to be gassed, in the second half.”
Truthfully, this was the case as the Bobcats assumed a 12-3 lead in the second period, only to have the Coogs strike back to take a 13-12 halftime lead. When cornerback Orlando Gonzalez hopped a route on a Bobcat pass from out of the shadow of the EHS goal line, returning it for a flash 5-yard touchdown, the lead zoomed to eight and with it, the spirits of the long-suffering Old Gold soared.
That magic play came at 8:51 of the game, and though Coach Rene Guzman’s EHS club would rally to within 7 yards of the potential tying touchdown in the dying seconds, North maintained. Acuna was the man of the hour as he harassed star QB Rolando Abrego on vital back-to-back snaps inside the Red Zone. The second breakneck rush forced an incomplete and a subsequent intentional grounding penalty: this set the ball back at the 35, and more importantly, by rule ran a mandatory 10 seconds off the clock, leaving EHS just 0:04 to work with. Not enough.
“I spoke with Trebor this week, I got in his ear and I told him he needed to step up,” Gonzalez said. “There were some colleges inquiring about him, and they had been looking at him, this was his time to show up. And he did it. They all did!”
Before the late INC and crushing penalty, Abrego had appeared poised for the hero’s laurels, as he ran one in from the 7 with 0:20 left. But the flags flew and for once in a blue moon, an infraction of the odd and rare variety was spotted. More than a couple of Bobcats had slammed into the pile on the play, when Abrego appeared stopped, and their force broke the senior slinger loose for the end zone. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen it called, the dreaded “illegal assist” violation. Me neither. But this is what happened Friday, and the TD was erased.
This was supposed to be about the Bobcats, who came in at 4-2 in District 31-6A, knowing that taking care of business against a wounded enemy would basically put them in. North was 1-4 in the league and had lost four in a row, including that still astounding Oct. 8 defeat at the hands of the Coyotes, at home no less. And yet, this was still a Rivalry Game … no, make it The Rivalry Game, between programs that were slugging it out against each other way back when, when there was no Economedes or Vela. And maybe this would end up being a classic.
The all-time series stood at 16-10-2, North in front, although the ‘Cats had won four of the last five between the two. At its inception in 1991, North had taken five of the first seven (two ties) coached by the offensive guru Robert Alaniz. And a hard-nosed lineman named Gonzalez was in the center of it, so to say, back in 1992.
Now the latest installment, for EHS Homecoming, but to start out, the North stands on the visitor side looked like open, bleak prairie, fewer than 100 rooters ensconced in the bleachers with only 30 minutes to go before kickoff. Scattered lightning and grumpy skies did not stop the game from beginning, but a steady if docile rain fell from the onset, this to continue for roughly two-thirds of evening.
North got the first break, forcing an early punt that went just 20 yards and set the Coogs up at the EHS 42. Chris Barrera, on his way to a season-best 139 rushing yards, popped for some solid gains but the ‘Cats stiffened and forced a 31-yard field goal attempt from Yahir Trejo, who made good the effort at 8:27.
Next Acuna and the defense did it again, with the burly tackle crashing in to rush the punter, leading to another poor boot and Coog possession at the Bobcat 39. The field position battle was thus going the visitor’s way, but now to cash in the break, something this team has struggled with at times in 2021. EHS’s Rhyan Gudino made sure to dent the confidence of his rival school, intercepting a pass (second week in a row for him) to halt the North try at a bigger lead. And like teams do when they are heading toward the postseason, the Bobcats took advantage of a turnover, driving downfield to take a 6-3 lead at 3:33 of the first.
Abrego, who was to throw 28 times Friday, found that the Coogs had game-planned for him, much as Vela and Pharr North had done earlier in the slate, and so he unlimbered his arm to find first Christian Ramirez and then Joseph Sanchez (great game on both sides of the ball) before junior Noel Serna slipped in from the 5.
A bit wobbly but unfazed, the Coogs then advanced to the 42 with Barrera attacking and the North line holding sway with its size against the speed and quickness of the EHS front seven. Evan Medrano completed passes to Yahir Rodriguez and Marco Guerrero – each has more than 20 receptions this season, Jose Suares too, from a senior QB who has passed for 1,200 yards – but the march ended in a punt.
Taking the ball at their own 28, the ‘Cats rolled onward, looking to end this business once and for all. It had been very competitive and the last thing EHS wanted was to give its counterpart some momentum and let it think that it could hang. After all, they lost to La Joya. La Joya!
Abrego had scarcely run the ball at this point – once, actually – but now he took off for gains of 9 and 15, and from the North 20, brilliance. He deftly spun to get out of a jam at the line, leaned into the move and pushed off, fooling one tackler with a juke, speeding around another, and by the time he was done dancing, he had entered the end zone for a truly spectacular touchdown and a 12-3 lead. Weird, freshman football score, but nothing sophomoric about the run. Abrego picked his way through half the North defense, and maybe now the rout could go on as scheduled.
But as Gonzalez noted, the Coogs had been challenged by their mentors in the bye week and then the prep days leading to this game, and they had also challenged themselves, man for man, to put the past behind them and come out to play their way, their game. In the grand scheme of things, this matchup was Cougars-Bobcats, but it was also Cougars-Cougars and the North cats, well, they know what people had been saying lately, and they were sick of hearing it.
Medrano started the fire with a 31-yard gain to Rodriguez through misty skies, and eventually Barrera, who ran like a lithe spirit all night, finished the surge with a 5-yard run at 6:37 of the second. No blowouts here, baby. Game all on!
At this stage the teams faltered, as much from the onus of the intensity as from poor play. It was classic EHS-North, slam bang theater with the strong at the fore, the weak shying away. Very few of the latter Friday. This was fine football.
EHS then committed a weather mistake as the punter mishandled a soggy snap and was dumped for a 12-yard loss. North had it, and close, but Jonathan Duran and the EHS D slammed the door. On came Trejo again and he pounded a 32-yard field goal with just 34 seconds left to give the Coogs a 1-point lead heading into halftime.
Far from a pushover, not even close to a team that had quit, North was percolating, leading its rival, and planning an encore to a performance that so far had seemed very promising, indeed. What would be the EHS rejoinder?
KICKING THE BOARDS
Perhaps the key to the second half of this mammoth duel was field position. Gonzalez noted afterward that Mark Hernandez, the running back who has assumed the punting spot after several weeks of hardship from various other options, has a great leg.
“I told him he is a lot like Randy Ramirez already, he just needs to work on the details of punting,” said the coach, referencing the fabulous punter/QB from back in the day, who kicked those pigs so hard that often they ended up flat on side. “He has been working hard on corner kicks for a few weeks, really trying to understand how to put the ball where he wants it.”
During the second span, Hernandez was a standout in this regard, putting the ‘Cats in a hole at their own 13 early on. But Abrego completions to Ramirez and Dylan Garza got Guzman’s unit cranking. Garza then sped 22 yards on the Jet Sweep, showing that in this half the quick little athlete was ready to shine. The EHS march hit the skids, though, on a key illegal motion call followed by a screen pass that bounced off an ill-placed lineman and fluttered harmlessly to the green. North had held.
And so here came North, intent on lengthening the lead. Medrano led them to two first downs and from the EHS 27 he sailed a perfect pass to Rodriguez for a score. Blast! Illegal man downfield, no dice. Medrano then executed a timing route with excellence, dropping a long ball on a dime to the left sidelines for a first down. Blast! Drop.
Drive over and would this be the banana peel that would trip them up? When a team is reeling, it doesn’t take much. This was character check time for the Coogs, who had come out bedecked in all Old Gold, a cool look for the purists out there.
After this self-inflicted failure to get in, Hernandez was the glue that held the thing together, punting down to the 4 where Federico Cappadona corralled the ball before it could go any further. The next hero of the night was nose man Isaiah Cepeda, a thorn in Bobcat sides all night. The stocky tackle made five stops Friday, recorded five QB hurries, and now forced Abrego into an incomplete and a punt. Junior Rivers Martinez had jammed 25 yards with a pass to kickstart the drive but it had ended without points.
After advancing to the EHS 33 behind some swift and powerful runs from Barrera, whose lack of height enables him to seem obscured behind the large line until he explodes into and through a hole, North was stopped. No worries, the Coogs just called on that man again, and Hernandez responded with a punt that was downed at the 5, early in the fourth.
Here the Key Juncture, as Orly Gonzalez guessed right, jumping in front of an EHS receiver wide left, gloving the pick and entering school annals with a gigantic touchdown at just the right moment. The Bobcats do not employ the prototypical vertical passing game, preferring to use quick hitters to the flats and let their speed on the outside do some work. So Gonzalez had an intuition, he acted on it, and he scored. Eight-point game, less than nine minutes to go.
When EHS got the kickoff, it had some miles to travel, knowing that if it could not come back, the bye week and then a showdown date with P-SJ-A would mean even more. Chances are, that final night of toil against the Bears will now be the dealmaker or deal-breaker. More machinations and prognostications soon enough.
The series went distressingly fast, three incompletes and a punt, as Acuna and the defense scrapped and clawed. It was a balanced production night from the Old Gold stoppers, no one stood out with a million tackles but each of the 11 did his 1/11, sure in the clutch. Orly Gonzalez, who has missed time due to injury, obviously was a marquee guy, and having steady Daniel Rodriguez back at linebacker after training room time, that helped as well.
This was the scene, North with the ball and dying to run out the clock, so close to redemption but not counting anything as in the bag yet. Barrera did his part with a 17-yard burst to begin and he produced another first down soon after. The offense was at the North 41 with the Bobcat rooters watching, rather quietly for some reason. But junior defender Ramon Vazquez made enough noise for everyone, tearing in to drop Medrano for a five-yard loss and giving the home side one final opportunity to salt away a playoff spot.
Abrego, who ran 14 times for just 50 yards but passed for 146, worked against extreme North pressure now, and the ‘Cats got a break when North committed a personal foul to grant its rival a first down. Abrego hooked up with Garza on a gain but then disaster nearly struck as EHS fumbled, only to recover and rescind its own gaffe.
From the 46, Garza again, grabbing a quick pass and darting 24 yards with it down to the 34 with 1:02 left in the game. This season has been one of blowouts at Richard R. Flores Stadium; very few bouts have been close, one way or the other. This one was, in every way, guey.
Serna rushed for six, with the clock ticking and the Bobcats –their cheer group screaming like mad on the sideline – got to the 10 on another Abrego flip to Garza (six catches Friday, the 22-yard run). Then the EHS QB was stunted for a 1-yard gain, leading to the aforementioned Push from his friends, which was flagged. Usually the refs will let that go if it is maybe one kid, usually a lineman, putting his nose into the pile to try and aid his mate to success. But when it’s an old-fashioned Wedge play from the 1910s, several offensive guys basically trying to circumvent gravity, well, it has to be called. But what a heartbreak for the ‘Cats.
The last-minute bear rush and run from Acuna, the flag for intentional grounding, and the burning of the precious seconds and … cut! Game over, North off the floor to cry victory to the heavens, and there was no little mirth in the Coog tank as they “waved” across the field at EHS and started to celebrate.
So now it’s the Coogs and the 3-3 Bears, Friday, with tons on the table. Gonzalez’ 2-4 team has to win twice to reach 4-4 in league play. If the Bears lose to North and then beat EHS, they would be 4-4, but both they and the Coogs would be out: EHS would be in, with its fifth 31-6A W. A three-way tie is also possible here.
Whatever happens in the offing, Friday was a real tonic for the Coogs; they rallied behind their coach and stood up for themselves with heart and skill, when many teams in a similarly depressing situation might have packed it in. They went toe to toe with the ancient foe and advanced out of the fray to herald the tale. After all that has gone on the past few weeks … Wham! What a time to be a Cougar!
And their shiny, happy faces – refreshingly boyish yet suitably manly – showed that loud and clear Friday.