October 29, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
When you’ve been to the brink of ruin, tasted the bitter fruits of failure but lived to grasp another chance, sometimes you come out and rise to new and greater heights, learning to re-believe every step of the way.
This is the story with the football Cougars lately, as following a devastating loss at home to La Joya Oct. 8, they have run off consecutive victories against quality competition. The latest, a 28-7 win over visiting P-SJ-A Friday, has North right in the playoff hunt at 3-4, with a match to go against still winless Juarez-Lincoln. Coming as it does after a vital Rivalry result over EHS Oct. 22, the defeat of the Bears means that if Coach Damian Gonzalez and the surging squad can take care of business next week, they will be in the postseason, provided the Bears can achieve a home win against the Bobcats on the same night.
For a program wracked with hardship and occasional self-doubt in 2021, one which has heard the complaints in town about its performance, Friday was just another stop on the Redemption Tour.
“That La Joya game, it was a real low point, not gonna lie,” said Gonzalez after Friday’s win, in which the Coogs (4-5 overall) parlayed three touchdown passes from QB Evan Medrano, a dominant performance from junior RB Mark Hernandez, and classic bend/no break defense into plaudits. “The kids were down after we lost to La Joya and you know, I have to give my staff a lot of credit for the way they handled the situation.
“And the kids, well, they have come of age the past few weeks, they kept saying, ‘We got you, coach, we got it, we’re going to make it,’ and that made me feel pretty good. We have all come together during this time and there was no panic, we kept saying stay the course, trust the process and the plan. Now it’s working.”
Hernandez was the latest runner to fashion a career night, after classmate and backfield twin Chris Barrera had zipped for 139 yards in the team’s 20-12 win over EHS. He, Hernandez, smashed his way to an impressive 184 yards on 23 carries versus the Bears, taking advantage of a one-sided mauling by an offensive line that hammered the smallish P-SJ-A defensive unit all night.
“Last week we needed quickness, more of a zone concept against the Bobcats,” Gonzalez explained. “This week we decided to let Mark loose inside and he did a tremendous job. He has always been a tough runner but now he’s not just banging in there’ he’s learning patience to see holes and blocks, and at the same time doing what he does: running downhill, outmuscling tacklers. He’s letting the blocks develop and tonight was perfect, we really needed what he gave us.”
So too did sharp stuff from Medrano at quarterback re-emerge at the right time. The senior started the season on fire with four TD balls against P-SJ-A Memorial and later produced a 300-yard outing against Mission. He had struggled the past few weeks leading to the EHS game, as had all the Coogs, truly. But Friday he completed his first seven passes en route to a 150-yard game and chipped in with a 2-yard TD run as part of a 21-point second period that installed North in a 28-0 lead by the half.
“He was hot from the start tonight,” Gonzalez beamed. “He knew exactly what he was seeing out there, he knew what to look for, and his reads were excellent. His throws too. Evan was outstanding tonight, no doubt about it.”
While the attack was exemplary in the first half, and ended with 378 total yards, the D was first class when the chips were down. Three times did the Bears drive into North territory (twice into the Red Zone) during the first half, only to be turned away at each such juncture. It was a tweaked unit that went with five defensive backs, OLB’s wide, and a three-man rush, cutting down space to combat a pass-happy Bear offense that had totaled almost 400 yards through the air in its last contest.
“We thought that we could do it, rush three and get eight back,” said the coach, who got solid work from a number of defensive Coogs. “To drop eight, you really have to get those front three working, and I thought they did well for us.”
Among those leading the charge was Eduardo Gonzalez, a former safety now at outside linebacker; he had eight tackles and recovered a pair of fumbles.
“There’s a guy, and there have many this year, that missed some time with injuries,” D. Gonzalez said. “But we are getting healthy at the right time, and Eduardo is a good-size kid who can move, he was great in this ball game. So was Cardenas, only a sophomore!”
Eliezar Cardenas was definitely part of the solution against the Bears, who picked up 303 yards Friday but managed only one score, a defensive one at that.
“Back in the spring we told that guy, ‘Hey, we like you and I think we can use you,’” Gonzalez recalled. “We got him into football class, which was not easy because he’s also a really good baseball player. But we got him in and slowly but surely he’s come on strong. The thing about Cardenas is, he’s a natural athlete, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s very smart, a real Brainiac out there.”
It was another solid night from a group that has gotten up off the floor and launched back into the conversation. Resilience. Even when they muffed the kickoff to start the third and immediately surrendered a shocking Pick 6, the Coogs didn’t crater. They got back to work with a conservative offensive approach that milked the clock and a defensive stand that stymied P-SJ-A – which had rolled to 63 points in its last game – in each possession after the defensive TD.
Afterward, bruising tackle Trebor Acuna leapt into the air to exchange a celebratory hip bump with teammate Martin Barrera; then the two were off to join the postgame jam with happy teammates and cheer/drill/band representatives.
A few weeks ago, this team had been reeling from a 4-game losing streak, people were bummed out, and it looked bleak. But now, the Coogs are ready for their final try, and a playoff berth is out there for the taking; they do, however, need a little help from the squad they just defeated. If the stars are aligned correctly next week, it will mean the third playoff trip in four seasons for the program and complete the stirring 2021 comeback from the football wilderness.
Nothing like something to play for, yet late in each slate, many/most programs are working on pride, poise, and next season as November nears. But not the Cougars and Bears, not Friday. The visitor was looking to get to 4-3 and better assure its chances of a spot in the Dance, and played like it initially, driving into North territory before a holding penalty and subsequent sack from the intimidating Acuna stopped the surge.
The Old Gold went nowhere on three runs, kicked away, and then had to work like Trojans to halt another Bear march. This they did at their own 18 after Gonzalez ripped the ball loose from a P-SJ-A runner and got the fumble recovery himself. This guy plays with motor and malice, he’s got bounce and brashness, and has helped the Coogs get their swagger back, no question.
Now Medrano showed his senior cool by connecting with Jaycen Rosales for a 28-yard gain to get the engine rolling. Then Hernandez set to pounding his way through the line and carried six times on a drive that reached a third-and-goal at the 1. Here, the Coogs were slick with a bootleg pass that Medrano slipped to wide open Jean Carlo Reyes at 1:52 of the first, 7-0 North. Boom!
But again the Bears came roaring back, churning all the way to the 14 before North LB Daniel Hernandez – back 100 percent now after an injury – was the headliner with a stick on a runner, a tackle for loss, and a pass defense play that led to a missed field goal. Having denied one of the league’s most potent offenses twice, the D was feeling it.
So was the O as Medrano next found Jose Soares for 18 yards and Rosales for 20. The QB then raced to another first down with an 11-yard run and capped the drive with a 16-yard score to Rosales, who had a nice night with three grabs and a couple of very effective downfield blocks.
That score came at 8:22 of the second, but North was just getting wound up. Despite a holding call, the Coogs strode forth on their next possession, Hernandez breaking off a 23-yard pop and Yahir Rodriguez latching onto a 13-yard pass. This was the quick-working, efficient attack that the Coogs had displayed earlier in the season, when some observers had penciled them in for a possible shot at the 31-6A title. Now, at the 11th hour, they were confident again, executing with alacrity, and wearing the Bears down.
At 2:36 of the half, it got to 21-0 on Medrano’s short dash, and on the kickoff, P-SJ-A coughed it up, giving the Coogs the pigskin at the 15. Soon it was Rodriguez, catching a 15-yard scoring ball from Medrano with 1:20 to go, and by now, it didn’t seem like a fluke or an off night from the Bears. This was just the Coogs playing the way they knew they could, proving themselves in a big game and riding closer to the playoff berth.
Hernandez, who also punted with expertise aside from his gargantuan rushing stats, suggested that North had to make amends for an Oct. 8 lapse in concentration.
“We got caught slacking, that’s all there is to it,” said the little battering bull. “We took La Joya too lightly, we thought we were going to blow them out and we paid the price. We didn’t prepare as hard as we should have and boy, the coaches let us know about it! But since then, we’re getting some big wins, we learned our lesson.”
Hernandez is a perfect example of what’s gone right for the team lately. He’s broken his hump to get better, and it started a long time ago.
“I had always been a running back, and I wanted to get back to that,” he said, mentioning that he spent some time at fullback in the past and seen other kids, such as Reyes last year and Barrera at times in 2021, get the lion’s share of the carries. He’s not greedy, he just wants his chance too.
“I worked man, really hard, on the weights, in sprints,” he intoned. “I just got down to it and wanted to get better, and now it’s starting to pay off.”
As for his hardman style, taking no prisoners, cracking head and shoulders in there without delay, Hernandez explained the vibe.
“It’s never about being angry or against the other team,” he said. “I just like to run hard and challenge the other guy, put him down. I like to run someone over and then watch them see me, my size, that I’m not that big, maybe 155.”
“They’ll be like, ‘Is this the guy, how did he do that?’ Hey, I love to play football, and we all want to win. But at the end of the day, it’s a game, and I take it like that.”
In the second half, after the Bears closed to within 21 at 28-7, the game slowed considerably, partly by design. The Coogs were in no hurry and the Bears, who got their valued QB knocked wobbly a few times, were. But Acuna’s defensive crew would not yield a point in the half as Isaiah Cepeda continued to chase the passer with fire in his gut. D. Hernandez (nine tackles) was back to his old routine of seek and destroy, same with safety Gio Gonzalez.
The wild card, Federico Cappadona, stuck his nose in for 10 tackles and another backfield man, Keyshawn Garcia, was active with eight stops and a leaping deflection of a sideline pass. Garcia, one of the many juniors on the roster this season, can be a difference-maker with his size, speed, and willingness to hit somebody. Keep an eye on 19.
Despite a low-key home crowd that seldom reached anything like a fever pitch, North produced a telling result, taking on – and down – a Bear group that many thought might end the dream. But Gonzalez has been confident all along – even in the trying times of recent days – that his kids could do the do. And now they are a step away from the Promised Land, forced into the odd situation of having to root against familiar and timeless frenemies as the Bobcats travel to the Tri Cities to battle with the wounded Bears.
Funny how things work out, after all.