November 11, 2021
By Greg Selber
Reading the echoes of Thursday night implies a case of perspective and interpretation but also one of expectations.
For those who see the glass as always half full, call them the optimists, the SaberCats 17-7 bi-district victory at home over San Benito was what it was, a ticket to the area round of the state playoffs. Those sunny side up types will note that the Greyhounds came in 8-2, have been one of the best teams in the Valley for nearly a decade, and gave Vela the stern test it badly needed after a season – mainly, not all – of easy blowouts and copious headlines trumpeting their greatness. It’s all good. And the optimists would not be wrong.
Then again there are the pessimists – they would call themselves “realists” – who tend to be critical of all things and would see the glass as half empty; still a glass, but not full. For them, Thursday was more than a wakeup call, a narrow run affair in which the Sabes, now 11-0, did not play very well in stretches, got popped in the mouth frankly, and have a lot of work to do in the coming days if they expect to stay on the same field with San Antonio competition, which they will undoubtedly run smack dab into at the next stage.
At the risk of a cop-out, let it be suggested here that they’re both right.
True, the Sabes overcame a San Benito bunch that was ready to fight, withstanding intermittent blasts from a quality and determined foe, one that was bent on showing that despite all the talk about Vela, Vela, Vela (Marcia, Marcia, Marcia for ancient Brady Bunch fanboys/girls) the Greyhounds can also play this game. Relying on a fantastic defense that allowed just 148 yards and seven points, Vela reaffirmed its standing as Valley No. 1, and the offense – living and dying, finally living on big plays – did enough to get past a team whose defensive unit was almost as good, giving up 249 total yards, Vela’s lowest output in 2021.
Too, true, Vela struggled to run the ball for the second game in a row, getting 103 yards on 36 carries after being held to less than 100 against Mission. The Sabes managed just 17 points, 25 below their average, got a touchdown called back by penalty, and at times looked befuddled in handling the pressure (the ‘Hounds watched the Mission tape, duh) that came and came and came, particularly in passing situations.
Somewhere between the disappointment some felt, and the elation others enjoyed at advancing to the second round, lies the reality. Such is life, just depends on who you are. How you roll, brain-wise.
Bottom line, as the school song wafted into the air after Thursday’s mission, the kids were celebrating with the trophy, their coach was grinning broadly in front of a banner announcing his 150th career win, and the wheels in the collective Vela head were slowly turning toward what lies ahead. Other bottom line, the Greyhounds, who hit just as hard as the Sabes, provided a legitimate scare to the higher ranked opponent, and got the usual outstanding noise and support from its traveling contingent of rooters, had proven a point.
They had gone toe to toe with the adversary, given as well as they got, and lost. Them is facts. Everyone is right … OK, sensitivity training session over, sign here.
A TEST AT LAST
In the run-up to this one, some folks were playing the Bacon Game, saying that alright, Harlingen beat San Benito – shut them out, in fact – and we made quick work of the Cards, in the season opener. Six degrees of separation and all that. Others intuited that at this stage of the season it’s a brave new world, meaning all the past info is out the window and we begin anew. And another dusty old axiom: when the playoffs come, some teams are improved over previous performances and others are stagnant, complacent.
San Benito, whose other ’21 loss came to Lower Valley champ Harlingen South, is definitely better than it was midway through the season, and the Greyhounds set about proving it in bi-district. Tossing short, high-percentage passes – and completing a jet sweep pass that is highly unlikely, according to X’s and O’s – they moved smartly to the Vela 26 to start the contest. The word was that this club likes to run it, is loath to throw it, but most of the Sabes, coaches and players alike, had a feeling Coach Dan Gomez would be willing to gamble; he always is.
Luckily, the Magic Man, Justin Navarro, is also a high roller of considerable note, and he whipped in to intercept a San Benito pass to stop the opening drive of the night.
Vela, too, was not beyond a little trickeration, and from the 25, senor Chase Campbell found Jaden Tovar on a pair of completions, good for 31 yards. San Benito, having prepped on prime targets Justin Vega and Carlos Tamez, might have been surprised by the wrinkle. They did, however, manage to survive a duel with the real target, senior P.J. Rivera, as double coverage against the Vela star produced a ricochet interception in the end zone, and now each defense had come up to scratch when it mattered.
Next came classic Field Position 101, as Vela registered a pair of tackles for loss – the first by the combo of seniors Ethan Aguirre and Nilson Garcia, the second by speedy senior Ian Nova. Forced to punt, the visitor birthed a lame duck of 13 yards, giving the Sabes possession 31 yards away. SB’s defense, with a couple of smallish but quick linebackers and a defensive end who went maybe 170 but could run, dug in and gave not much, until it was fourth and 11 at the 32.
Campbell dropped back and looked right. Seeing nada, he then stepped up and checked down, seeing Rivera floating free on the left side; though the pass lacked the usual Chase Pace, it got there, and it was 7-0 at 3:04 of the first. Next bottom line: this team is unusually adept at converting the difficult downs and has been all season. Side note: getting into consistent third-and-long jams is a dangerous parlay the further one goes in the bracket. First down has to be positive, and this drive, though it ended with a huge Campbell moment, started with a motion penalty and an incomplete.
Now it started to have the feel of any ol’ Vela game, and the points surely were coming, marching inexorably over the Alps like the elephants of Hannibal. Welp …
The points came from the ‘Hounds, who did something that most Valley schools don’t do against Vela, which is run a kickoff back past midfield. Beginning at the Sabe 45, San Benny got another quick pass completion, a 27-yard run, and then a play-action rollout touchdown pass at 0:19 to tie the game at 7. Bro, I thought they couldn’t pass the ball … [shrugs].
Observers had believed that if Vela could run the ball, bi-district might be breezy. But with relentless pressure and movement from the San Benito D, a normally dominant offensive line was flailing a bit, missing the target, doing some turning and hoping. After one first down, the Sabe suffered a pair of sacks to end the threat, as the rushers got to Campbell before he got a chance to unlimber the rocket and throw downfield.
Of course, Vela’s defense can also bring the heat, and so after the punt, its efforts included two sticks from corner Miguel Ibarra (terrific game from him Thursday) and wham, the Vela Special: a blocked punt by senior Joshua Garcia. No one does special teams like the Sabes, just as back in the day, the Harlingen Cards were the ace unit, bar none.
Second quarter rolling, Vela at the SB 39, and runs from Rivera and Ryan Clough (younger sib of ex Blue and Black hitman Taylor) were north-south. Rivera, who has not featured as feature back much this season, well, you knew he was going to get the call Thursday, no matter what. And he did. On his way to 83 rushing yards, 82 receiving, he was the mainstay of the attack, such that it was. However, the ‘Hounds stiffened sufficiently to force a 28-yard field goal from senior Job Juarez at 2:25.
As the half closed, junior end Jake Dufner and linemate Joshua Gallegos stamped out any hope of a late rally, but into the break, just a 3-point lead, the ‘Hounds having slightly outgained Vela, 101 to 92, five first downs to four. Hey, it’s the playoffs, chill … till the next episode.
At this point, it was gutcheck time for No. 1. Campbell would say that by halftime, he had been slightly surprised at the physicality of the foe, and further was interested in seeing how his team would respond to a little adversity. Sometimes, he noted that it’s not just about talent, it’s about desire and poise. Can we say “ganas” on this site?
For the second half, Vela got into and stayed in its “heavy set,” which means a somewhat anachronistic looking – given the modern Spread era with its four wides, or “empty” backfield – formation with a back behind the QB and two others in the mix, on the direct wings. Often, this full house look was offset by short motion from one of the two “halfbacks” (or “H-backs”) but the intent was clear. We gon’ pound.
The look gained a first down out of the gate but then, first-down issues again as the Sabes were dumped for minus 3, soon faced a third and 8, and eventually punted away. During the string of one-sided smash hits this season over way lesser grebes, some fans might have forgotten that Vela actually has a punter, lol. A fine one, Vega.
Next series for the ornery opponent, and it was Daniel Arce, the small and speedy end, making two tackles. The ‘Hounds would run 31 times Thursday, netting a paltry 47 yards, meaning that if Vela could crank out another score or two, this one would be toast.
On cue, they responded, overcoming a first down (!) holding flag to get a 17-yard Campbell completion to RB Teddy Galvan on the screen pass – a maneuver that might just figure in next week’s game plan – and a 14-yard burst by Rivera, who seems a threat to go all the way every time he handles it. From the San Benito 19, he did go all the way, making a neat little ankle break on a hapless tackler at the 5 and styling his patented bunny hop across the goal line for a 17-7 advantage at 4:57.
With the 10-point lead, the defense went back to work, giving up a 20-yard pass down the middle but little else, forcing a Greyhound punt late in the third. But to show how much they were intent on playing four quarters, the ‘Hounds then forced Vela into another holding infraction, and got to the QB again; on came Vega for Vela.
Now, to characterize the bi-district game as boring because it only produced 24 points is to miss the angle. This was a tight, rough match between well-prepared teams who represent the apex of RGV gridiron ability. And the back and forth between the staffs – you do this, I do that – was sharp for 48 minutes. For the purist, an excellent football game, all around. If nervy.
As the fourth began San Benito knew it needed to come up with points, or face elimination. Inserting another QB, a taller kid in lieu of the shorter one who had done a credible job to that point, the ‘Hounds started to move it. A pass interference call on Vela started the drive and two more first downs ensued until they sat at the Sabe 20. OK, big shots, what you got? Got a lot. Got stop!
Ibarra manned up for a TFL, minus 3, getting there in a hurry, and linebacker Ryan Rodriguez stuffed a runner for a loss of a yard. Ibarra and Josh Garcia then combined to send the ‘Hounds reeling with a 5-yard loss, and Dufner’s leaping deflection of a pass at the line on fourth was the sugar on the pastry, capping a championship sequence. Allow a TD there, and trouble. They didn’t and they won. Simple as that.
In the last 10 minutes, Vela looked to finish, but a pair of home runs from Rivera did not fully scratch the desperate but dogged ‘Hound defense. One was a 51-yard bomb from Campbell to Rivera and the other was a pretty scintillating 89-yard scoring sprint from same, the latter nullified by penalty. The Sabes also dropped a touchdown pass during this last stretch, and surely they will seek to clean up the execution act moving forward.
But as Ibarra and then Rodriguez came up with picks to stop the final two SB possessions (the latter with a magnificent diving stab way downfield, seemingly out of LB territory), victory was attained at last.
Rodriguez, who has been a rock in the middle all season, noted afterward that the Sabes had been waiting for this type of game for a while: they wanted/needed a challenge. Gallegos, too echoed this sentiment. A team can only play who it plays, and Campbell, the coach has been saying for some time – no disrespect, either – that in terms of overall talent, 32-6A might have been a bit better than Vela’s 31 this season. Meaning that the ‘Hounds came in with more battle scars. Again, no control over things like that. And it was instructive to see the Sabes get socked a few and note their response, which was in the main satisfactory.
Gallegos and Rodriguez also spoke to the defensive effort, saying that Vela knew the type of balls the ‘Hounds were comfortable with throwing, and had to adjust. Both gave ample respect to San Benito, and not in a patronizing way.
The bond between opponents, who had slugged it out fair and square for all to enjoy, was apparent after the final whistle. The kids mingled together, and when did that rule change and cool. No more Wimpy Wave, you can slap hands with homies you knew from training, or 7 on 7 or whatever. Dudes that brought it. Seeing them physically commiserate after the game instead of being Boys in the Plastic Bubble, hey, that was almost as rich as the result for the home side. Dang, real football again!
So our pessimists, the worry warts, might have walked away grumbling, pondering how this and why not that, yada yada blah, whereas the optimists were taking endless pics of the trophy party, grooving to the music, maybe overlooking the obvious tasks ahead. The downside of optimism can be a certain idealism. Both camps had better get versatile, these grasshoppers and ants.
Time to gather the sum of this effort, discard the chaff and store the wheat for use against the coming winter. Because it’s coming, Bromie, believe it. Though the Sabes are the best in the land, and while they showed their character and guts with a tough W versus a worthy invader, it only gets stronger from here. Stronger the competition, quicker the opening and closing of the holes, and stronger again, the gravitational pull of oblivion that eventually sucks every team but one (per class and division) into the drain of over with.
You love these nights, when the kids show their moxie, growth, and guts. And yet you know what’s out there, the quality heading your way, the history of struggle against the hordes from el Norte … and it scares you, as much as it motivates you. And it challenges you, as it rightfully should. It is all good.
To be a SaberCat this week means to prepare for the ultimate test, the highest grade, and to be neither optimist nor pessimist. Just hard, hard as nails. Sharp, razor. And alert, quick and dirty. Anything else … graveyard.