November 5, 2021
By Greg Selber
With the league championship wrapped up and the bye week in progress, the SaberCats were taking a quick breath, using the time off to rest a bit and get 100 percent healthy. And then get back to the rockpile as the playoffs approach.
“The timing of the bye is OK with us, really,” said Coach John Campbell Tuesday. “We’re focusing on getting some guys back healthy and we are also continuing to prep for potential playoff opponents, so it’s actually been sort of busy.”
Campbell’s Vela squad capped a 10-0 season with a thorough 35-7 victory over Mission Oct. 28. Now it’s the waiting/thinking game to see who the foe will be in bi-district; either San Benito or Weslaco, probably the former. And it’s a game within the game that Campbell has always enjoyed. In his time at the school, he’s distinguished himself as a fellow who does the brain work as well as the leg work. He and his staff study almost as much as the kids in class. And then they bring their masterclass to the players.
THE ROAD TO VELA
Though he majored in management at Rice, the San Antonio man always had sports on his mind.
“I grew up a typical kid, playing ball all the time,” he recalled. “I was the kid in the backyard throwing the football, pretending to be Roger Staubach or Tony Dorsett, my family was big into all sports, especially baseball, and basketball, but I somehow got the itch for football.”
Campbell went through college as a squadman in football, but his degree called for lots of numbers, statistics, economics, that sort of thing. He realized a problem as he prepared to graduate.
“I started thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to have to wear a tie every day to go to work,’” he chuckled. “And so I was giving coaching a serious look at that time.”
The business world’s loss eventually ended up being Vela’s gain as its coach, now in his fifth terrific season at the school, has paced the Sabes to 49 triumphs so far. And ironically, the training in numbers has come in mighty handy.
“I guess you could say that there is some carryover there when it comes to numbers and stats,” he explained. “When you look at big-time football today – any sports really – it’s all about analytics, Money Ball, things of that nature. Heck, you’ve got a computer telling you what to do about 50 percent of the time!”
What that means is that Campbell and his staff are forever studying, videos, film, what have you, and they coach the kids with this in prominent mind. The SaberCats employ a concept called the Answer Sheet, wherein every coach and every player is well drilled in what to expect from the other team, and how to make adjustments on the fly.
“We go into Monday with a plan and it goes three-deep as the week progresses,” he said, adding that his team will know what the opponent is going to try and do, and act accordingly. “By the time someone catches up to what we are doing, hopefully we have moved on to the next step. It’s all about anticipation and reaction, so that we can stay ahead of what teams are trying to do and make them adjust to us.”
Campbell learned this game of learn-and-adjust the hard way, when he was a head coach up in San Antonio. In stints at Jay (2004-06), Brandeis (2008-14) and Madison (2016), with a short stay at Katy and one as an assistant at Texas A&M-Commerce, he matched wits with some of the greats of the profession.
“When you’re up against the Larry Hills of the world, you learn real quick,” said the coach, referencing the Smithson Valley mentor who has won 276 career games.
“As a young coach I learned that if you’re not two steps ahead in terms of learning and preparation, you’re behind. Hill and those guys were literally playing chess with 16- and 17-year-olds, it opened my eyes to what it takes to win, and I sure took my lumps in the beginning.”
For every game, Campbell and Co. make sure to have done their homework, as far as thought process is concerned.
“Every team has a game plan, what they are going to try and do, and that plan involves you, they gameplan against you, what you like to do,” he said. “We try and think, ‘Alright, if we were them, how would we attack us?’ and we come up with an answer for that. I’ve always liked that part of coaching, the preparation, the chess match aspect of it.”
A good example of this concept in motion comes from the Vela defensive line. In limiting the opposition to 140 yards and seven points per game in 2021, the Sabes have gotten great mileage out of their front three/four.
“We went back and did re-personnel with the group, trying to get our best athletes on the field on defense,” he noted. “And up front, we have guys who physically fit what we want to do with that group, to let them play faster and use the athletic ability.”
Joshua Gallegos and Jake Dufner are the main horses, and each brings a special skill-set to the table.
“Dufner is a guy who wants to beat his man 1 on 1 and get to the football, and he’s dang good at it,” Campbell said of the ferocious junior. “Whereas Josh is really good at understanding what he’s seeing, he’s a cerebral player who picks up tendencies in pass protection and works off that. Together, they allow us to engage in what we call ‘naturals,’ meaning those guys partner up, move around, and adjust to what they are seeing as the game develops.
“We can mix it up because those two partner well, they know what each other can do, and they can create real matchup problems for the other team. Josh has been very productive because he knows what he’s seeing.”
While Campbell might not have predicted that the Vela defense would be the No. 1 unit in the Valley, he got an inkling of the unit’s potential early in the slate.
“We have played our best games on D against the better teams, the Harlingens, Memorials, P-SJ-A North,” he suggested. “The overall plan this season was to build excellence on special teams and defense, and run the ball, because as I have said before, we had to get better at running the ball against the top teams, when they know you have to run it.”
Which brings us to the offensive line for 2021, a contingent that has surpassed what the coaches had in store.
“We had graduated some guys and this was then a point of emphasis for us,” Campbell said. “But the way our guys have developed there has been outstanding, they have exceeded our expectations.”
From center Brandon Hinojosa to linemates Kaden Truitt and James Cantu, among others, the trench crew of Hogs has done a whale of a job all season.
“Brandon, with his length and athleticism, his experience, he really gives matchup problems to any defensive line he faces,” Campbell noted. “With Kaden, he didn’t have a whole lot of experience, but he has gotten better and better each week, he’s really hitting his stride now. And as for James, well, he brings toughness and consistency, he’s grown into the position and has taken ownership with it; he’s an enforcer out there, in the best sense of the word.”
And when senior Mark Gomez, the leader of the pack, went down with an injury (he’s back in action for the playoffs) Noah Almaraz stepped in and performed admirably. Working at times with a two tight end set, Vela has become more than just the pass-happy bunch people perceived (sometimes erroneously) in the past, and in 2021 the numbers (2,005 rushing yards, 1,550 passing) speak to that balance.
“You have to be able to grind it in the playoffs, get the tough yards, we have been a little lacking in that the past few years, so we really committed to getting better,” he said. “So to see our line come up the way it has, it’s very gratifying, and I think our ability to run the ball has helped our passing game as well.”
HEAVY LIFTING TO COME
As the Sabes look to the playoffs, they know that as the Valley’s No. 1 outfit, they will be favored to win in bi-district. But Campbell is not taking anything for granted.
“No matter who it is, San Benito or Weslaco, we don’t count anything as a gimme,” he stressed. “We’ve been hard at work studying the potential opponents, coming up with the game plans and answers for any of them; the thing is, you might say that their district has been a little more competitive than ours this season, top to bottom, so they’ve been tested more, week by week. Those teams over there, Harlingen, South, Weslaco, San Benito, and Los Fresnos, they have some size and they have some speed. So, we are going to have to be ready to do what we do, follow our plans, and execute, that’s what football comes down to, at any level.”
Not that they’re looking ahead at all, but they know that a second-round matchup for the Sabes will bring a San Antonio school, and right now the bracket suggests either Marshall or Taft; neither is a Brandeis, Brennan or Steele in terms of overall talent and tradition, which makes the possibility of a deep SaberCat run into the postseason a distinct possibility.
No, they’re not overlooking the Valley challenge ahead, and Campbell made sure to reiterate that more than once. Note: a win in the opener would provide a personal milestone for the coach, his 150th career victory as a head coach.
With this group of indefatigable grinds, who relish the numbers, matchups, and the chess game, rest assured: Vela will never go into any situation having failed to do its due diligence, homework, and prep. This attention to detail, along with a healthy supply of talented kids, explains why the Sabes have become the premier program in the area; they’ve made a trio of three-deep runs under Campbell and are looking for another in 2021.