October 28, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
As their lives cruise inexorably onward, most people at some point will feel called upon to say, musing inwardly or aloud: just where does the time go? The novelist Proust suggested as much in “In Search of Lost Time” (1913) and for a more modern version, there’s rockin’ Texas boy Stevie Miller … time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ … into the future. That album dropped hard in the foggy, glorious year that was 1976.
Let us not get too sidetracked down a rabbit hole by considering Einstein and his famous theory of relativity, which put the kibosh on any certain notions of the relation between space and time. The fact is, you cannot save time in a bottle because time is always. And forever. Or never.
One has to blink and again to remember that is the 10th season of SaberCat football, but against Mission Thursday there were reminders of lineage and legacy on display for those willing to but notice. Seems like yesterday that Michael Salinas and the original Blue and Black were hitting the field for their first game ever and now, a decade of excellence in the rearview.
For the Homecoming celebration, the school was honored by the ravishing presence of Minga Vela, whose husband Robert Vela was and is the namesake for whom the SaberCats were christened, and her grandchildren were the crown bearers for the halftime ceremony. Those who knew The Coach are often reminded of him, and not just when they hear that Vela has won this or that, although such mention is copious and constant. He would be happy about the overall success of the school athletic efforts, but he would be equally proud of his family and the way it has galvanized around his memory in the past 14 years.
As a leading mentor at first Edcouch-Elsa and then Edinburg High, Vela was always known as a winner on the field, but off it as well, a generous and charismatic figure who cared about the kids and their lives. He and his brother Pete had played for the legendary Fred Akers in the early 1960s, and went on to become molders of men through football; their battles against each other when Pete was at Mercedes, Robert at E-E, were terrific nights of fun at war, and time stood still when those two brothers went at it.
COME TO SHINE
So to the game at last, where time was once again a theme as the SaberCats attempted to capture a district title for the sixth time, and sixth such crown in the last seven seasons. And third in a row and you get the point. The program, now run by the cerebral warrior, John Campbell, has become the gold standard in Valley football, the team nobody wants to play against down here because they know that the SaberCats – with equal parts skill and effort, athleticism and belief – will stomp ya, time and time again.
Now Mission, whose fans can boast that they were celebrating championships before the Velas were even born (1941, Tom Landry!) and have enjoyed many fine seasons since then. And that would be correct. For the Sabes, the Eagles represented something very important; a chance to face off against a quality foe, an opportunity that presented itself early on in 2021 but has been seldom seen since. Having dispatched enemy after enemy in a relatively facile march to the top of 31-6A – and the RGV – Campbell’s squad has not truly been tested since the league opener against Pharr North way back on Sept. 10.
Before the game began, Campbell was definitely piqued for this showdown against the 5-1 Eagles. Not necessarily just at the chance to win the league again, but more for the fact that his team was in desperate need of a challenge.
They got it, for the most part, as Mission hit hard, worked hard, and was intent on giving the dominant power a jolt. Behind 7-0 and having been held to three straight three-and-outs by the area’s top defense, the Eagles hopped on a fumble at the Vela 34 near the end of the first quarter. This was the opening they had waited for, after having held the Sabes on downs at the Eagle 25 and survived a woeful night of punting that would have been comical had it not been so potentially disastrous. But in trying to take advantage of a chink in the Vela armor, Mission was thwarted, as a holding penalty on a night of flags and fanfare hurt the charge. So did a quarterback pressure from raging Daniel Arce of Vela. And when Justin Navarro registered a sharp pass defense, the Eagles were forced to punt.
The hint of a Key Juncture had passed unused, and from there, well, Vela.
Scoring twice in the second period, once on a sweet catch-and-run of 36 yards by Carlos Tamez and again on a blocked punt touchdown, the Sabes cruised to a 35-7 victory in the end, salted away the title and began to look forward to the playoffs. With the bye week ahead, time on their hands, so to say, the Sabes added to their trophy case and will now spend the two weeks to come in preparations for the postseason. In due time.
“We were thinking this would be a difficult game in some ways and we were OK about that,” Campbell said after Vela wrapped up an undefeated district run for the sixth season in 10. “We needed to work against a quality opponent to get our timing back, our rhythm down; we needed this. Now we have the bye week, get some bodies back out there from injuries, and get ready for what comes next.”
One of the bodies sure to be back in two weeks for bi-district is Mark Gomez, a senior lineman who has been out since early in the campaign, a guy whom Campbell calls the smartest trench soldier he has, a team leader as well. On crutches the past several weeks and itching to get back into the war, No. 73 should be good to go when the time arrives.
In his stead the rest of his linemates have stepped up well, though against a hard-knocks Mission D the going was anything but simple Thursday. Vela struggled to run the ball – gaining just 96 yards on 27 carries – and was forced into some creativity, a strong suit of the staff with OC (and former Mission megastar) Jamaar Taylor at the helm. The O unleashed the screen to RB Teddy Galvan and it worked like a champ twice. It took advantage of the Eagle blitz when possible, as QB Chase Campbell, despite intense pressure from the get-go, came up with massive tosses to Justin Vega, Tamez, and hybrid P.J. Rivera, finishing with 201 passing yards on a night when he showed maturity amid struggles to connect with open receivers while battling a harassing Eagle rush.
And the special teams play, which has been exemplary for many seasons, again was a boon, as Josh Garcia broke in to block a Mission punt and Homecoming King Ethan Aguirre snapped up the gift, racing 20 yards into the end zone for a 21-0 lead with 6:46 left in the second period. Garcia was a real factor at strong safety Thursday, and after the game he and fellow senior Matt Luna spoke about the game, the season, and etc. They assayed their trajectory and that of the team, pleasant banter from a pair of super good kids, maturing by the minute.
“I think we are mentally better than ever, and we may have the fastest secondary Vela has ever had,” said Garcia, whose father has been documenting his exploits on the field with expert photography over the past three seasons.
Luna, who has become a standout among standouts, though now teams are surely wary of his prowess in coverage and laying the boom, added another element.
“We’re a lot smarter now, that’s one big thing,” said the lockdown corner, who like Garcia is a three-year veteran. He and Garcia agreed that they know all the plays/moves/wrinkles now, having seen them over and again since becoming starters in 2019. Sometimes they can be tricky to identify, with Luna wearing No. 6, Garcia No. 8; but they both make plays, and often.
Another thing that is for sure, and one everyone can see, is that these two kids have worked in the weight room over time and are now muscular, confident, and wreaking havoc on opposing receivers on a regular basis. Remember the skinny sophomore from EHS back in the day, guy named Sal? By the time he was done as a Bobcat, Sal Martinez had become as yoked as they come, one of the best all-around athletes to play the Valley game. Same with Daniel Enriquez, who was also a sophomore of some note for the Salinas-led Sabes, a cat who trained like a demon and was able to break bricks by the time his senior season had passed. And juke through walls.
Speaking of Enriquez, a third member of Vela’s awesome back four reminds some folks of him. Navarro is a live wire waiting to sizzle, and one of the reasons Mission had such issues kicking the football Thursday – besides the ferocious rush – was the obvious necessity of punting away from the dangerous junior whose returns have been Enriquez-like all season long. He also broke up four passes.
Luna noted that one of the secret ingredients to DB glory has been the ability to stay cool.
“We have the experience now, and we stay calm,” he said. “Of course, there’s a balance there, because if you’re too laid back, you aren’t going to bring it. We try not to get too crazy, just keep thinking, the next play, that’s what matters.”
The defense was true to form against Mission, giving up 214 yards, a chunk of that coming in the fourth quarter when the die was long since cast. Up 21-0 at the half, the Sabes got a 51-yard touchdown pass from Campbell to the amazing Rivera followed by a 19-yard run by the self-same stud – his third six of the affair – and were ahead 35-0 into the last stages, when Mission put together a scoring march to avoid the Ziggy.
The zig-zagging Rivera says he is running “lighter” right now after a series of nagging knocks buffeted him during the early going, and his performance against a strong defense spelled that out. He will also do something on a nightly basis that makes the Old School leftovers grin: he hits you, you don’t hit him. Rivera is a physical marvel who routinely knocks the defenders for a loop, low and coiled, exploding into would-be tacklers with a little surprise. The senior home run threat is at home in the slot or as the set back and he will, going forward, be the main bell cow the team depends on for the postseason run. With a blend of strength and speed, quickness and a little cocky added, Rivera is a sure-fire All-Area candidate, and if they still had the All-Valley unit – a relic of recent vintage – Rivera would be on it.
Vela has now outscored the Other Guys 417 to 62 for the season, in nine games minus the nada forfeit with Juarez-Lincoln. The offense has done its part and the D, with those fantastic DBs – plus the speedy and hit-greedy tandem of Jake Dufner and Joshua Gallegos up front and a linebacking corps headed by heavy hitter Ryan Rodriguez and quickster Ian Nova – has been top-flight all the way.
With the situation in 32-6A still a bit up for grabs, the Sabes go back to work in practice, and though they might be facing a first round date with a pretty salty San Benito outfit, Garcia and Luna know that it’s not about the opponent, it’s about them. They have gotten bigger, faster, stronger as time has marched on, but also wiser.
Garcia was asked if he felt like the Sabes, every time they step on the field, expect to win.
“Not always, nobody wins every time,” he admitted. “Every game is different, but we do feel we have a good chance against any team we might play.”
Nodding his head, Luna produced what would be the watchword of the night, as the two stars prepared to join the poignant and yet giddy adventure of the Vela Senior Walk. On the continuum of time, this ritual event is a rite of passage for those who have spent four years in high school and are about to find out what time has in store for them next. Scary happy.
“In my opinion, this is it, playoffs,” he stressed. “Really, for us, the season has barely just started.”
The clock ticks on the latest Blue and Black edition, a senior-led battalion with serious star power and a track record of notable exploits. For the veterans, the road is open for a last grand journey into the money rounds; they’ve been working for this for three seasons, and now’s their chance to carve a mark into the annals of school, and city history. The push begins and to round out the evening’s motif, it should be a good time coming for all.