November 17, 2021 [updated November 18, 2021]
By Greg Selber
As Vela prepares to take on San Antonio Taft Saturday in the area round of the state playoffs, the pregame history class in now in session.
The Raiders once made it all the way to the state final, in 2001, before losing to Mesquite, 14-13. And there have been many other quality football teams out of the Alamo City.
In the history of San Antonio gridiron, which is long and illustrious, there have been some great ones. SA Brackenridge, which until 1932 had been known as Main High, won the 1947 4A title by beating Highland Park. Now Highland Park, in the Dallas area, had boasted two of the finest players ever, Doak Walker and Bobby Layne, in making it to the finals in 1944 and 1945, losing and then tying for the crown. Anyway, two years after Brack won it all in ‘47, Jefferson did too, defeating Dallas Sunset behind the sublime play of the legendary Kyle Rote. Yawl got to Google, these tidbits must be known by all true football fanatics.
Down the road, in 1962, it was Brackenridge again that took the Lone Star trophy, beating Brownsville High in the quarters (High was the forerunner of Brownsville Hanna) and eventually downing panhandle entry Borger in the state finals. That Brack team had the magnificent Warren McVea, the elusive runner who helped break the color barrier with the University of Houston and later played in the pros with the Chiefs; he led the team in rushing attempts in Super Bowl IV, at Tulane Stadium in January 1970.
Special mention to the Ro-Hawks of Randolph, Class 2A runner-up of 1967; they lost to Plano that year.
The next great SA period involved Lee, which is now known as … LEE. That group went deep into the playoffs in 1965 (fourth round) and 1969 (fifth, lost to Wichita Falls in the final) and four times in the 1970s would be alive in December. The Rebels, as they were known, lost to Wichita Falls in the 1971 state finals and made it to the fourth stage in 1972, 1975, and 1977. QB Tommy Kramer, later of Rice and Minnesota Viking fame, was a standout, and Lee knocked off a very good McAllen High team in the regional quarters of 1975. Future RGV Hall of Famer Charlie Williams was the Mac coach back then.
A Lee compadre of the time, Churchill, went at least four-deep five times from 1976 to 1987, and did it again in 2016. The Chargers combated the 1976 state final, beating Temple, 10-0, and in 1983 stopped the run of Richard Flores’ EHS team in the third round, though it was close. The Bobcats have generally come well up to scratch against the best, including 1953 when they stopped state No. 1 SA Edison in a stunning bi-district upset.
SA Holmes was a monster at times, reaching the fourth round in 1980 and the fifth in 1985, 1992, and 1999. Then there is Madison, once a feared entity and not so much lately. The Mavericks ascended to the fourth or fifth round 11 times, starting in 1984 and ending in 2013. Along the way, they defeated Valley teams in 1991 (Jim Hite’s Weslaco, with Sone “The Great” Cavazos at QB); 1998 (narrowly edged a super Rowe team, 28-25); 2005 (Bears); 2007 (Weslaco again, with the mercurial Mishak Rivas); 2011 (Harlingen in the fourth, again a narrow run thing the Cards could have won); 2012 (Sharyland); and 2013 (Sharyland again). Madison under Coach Jim Streety was always an immovable obstacle for the Valley.
Marshall had its moments, in 1999 (fourth round, beat a gutsy Rivera crew by just 3 in the regional quarters) and 2000 (fifth round, whipped McAllen in the third). And back in 1991, the Rams had been state finals casualties at the hands of Permian.
A relatively young school, O’Connor (founded 1998), has been into the Rare Air three times, beating Pharr North in 2003 to get there and moving past San Benito, 52-43, in 2017. Too, Reagan is a new group for the most part (born 2000) but has made five trips deep into the bracket. Los Fresnos fans hate to hear the name, as the Falcons were eliminated by the Rattlers thrice, in 2007-08 and again in 2014. Reagan also got past the Matt Kaufmann-led Memorial Mustangs in 2011, winning by 7 in the third stage. The truth is, Valley squads have often come close against the Alamo City; it hasn’t always been blowout city in Valley Week. That is hyperbole.
For great entries, one cannot leave out Roosevelt, which went all the way to the state crown in 1995, having beaten Harlingen South in the third, and not by much. That was one of the first Hawk squads, the third season to be exact, and their coach was the all-time leader in wins among Valley coaches, the saintly Alex Leal. And then there is Clark, a three-time stud which went to the fourth round in 1994, beat Sharyland on the way to the semis in 2008, and then rose to the fourth round in 2009 only to die against Westlake.
Harlingen has been one of the local schools that has always given the SA crews fits, from its 1-point loss to SA Stevens in 2010’s third round to its victory over Warren in 2011’s same stage.
Another local entry, MacArthur, had five big-time seasons including a state championship appearance but an L against Midland Lee in 1998, after having beaten Abel Gonzalez and Rio in the third round. In 2000, the Brahmas lost to Marshall in the fourth stage after having toppled EHS a game before. In 2006, Mac nipped the Bradley Stephens era Memorial group in round three, via a missed extra point, only to lose to Cy Falls down the road. See what we mean about competitive? It often has been just that when South Texas meets Deep South Texas.
Of the newer powers, there’s Johnson, which went five rounds deep in 2013, eventually expiring against Katy. Brandeis, once coached by Vela’s own John Campbell, has five appearances in the fourth round, and eclipsed Valley teams four times during that run, including Edinburg North in 2009 with the amazing Noah Copeland at running back. He would later play for Navy, and play well. Rivera (2014), Hanna (2018) and Vela (2019) were the other locals that met their match against Brandeis.
Brennan, which has eased ahead of Brandeis the past few seasons, beat Edcouch-Elsa in the regional quarters of 2012, lost the state final against Denton Guyer in 2013, and in 2020 beat Vela in area before losing to Vandegrift.
Our tour of Alamo City-area teams continues with Wagner, which was four-deep in 2010 – clobbering EHS in the AlamoDome in round three – and in 2018-19 advanced far into the bracket before fifth-round losses. Schertz Clemens went to round five in 1999 and 2003, and again in 2006, beating Edcouch-Elsa along the way in ‘06. The 2015 Buffs knocked out San Benito on the road to the regional semis, where they fell out.
Boerne made the fourth round in 2004 and sister school Champion did it in 2010 and then went five-deep in 2019, edging Sharyland Pioneer in the regional quarters. Alamo Heights went to the state semis in 2003 and 2006 but did not play a Valley team to get there. The Mules, however, did get an exit from the playoffs in 1954 after a 40-13 loss to a great McAllen High team. Distant shoutout to the ‘Dogs. In the modern era, Heights captured the 4A crown in 2006 by besting Copperas Cove.
No retrospective of this sort can leave out the Smithson Valley Rangers, who have attained the Rare Air eight times, the first time coming in 1998. They lost the state title game in 2001 and 2002 and again in 2004, with a clouting of a superb San Benito squad in that last playoff run. In 2007, Smithson Valley walloped what is probably the best Harlingen South edition ever, 55-7 in the third round, and also got past Harlingen by 15 on the way to the fourth round of 2015. In the past few seasons, Smithson Valley has come back to earth a bit, as all programs eventually do.
Another program that has subsided a tiny smidge lately is Steele, an absolute beast for most of its brief life (started play in 2006), posting nine seasons of sheer excellence, including a state title in 2010 (beat Memorial that season in the third stage). The Knights dispatched Edinburg North in 2012 and 2013 and Weslaco East in 2014, 2016, and 2017 to keep on charging through the bracket. Steele expired in the finals in 2016, against Desoto.
And finally, Converse Judson. The best high school team in South Texas for many, many years. National rank and reputation. Though the Rockets have fallen upon lesser times, by their cosmic standards, they are still a mythical name in this business. Judson won state in 1983, a year after reaching the semis thanks in part to a 12-0 victory over EHS, and that was one of the Bobcats’ best squads. Those two also squared off in the regional quarters of 1984, Judson winning, but just 14-7. The Rockets also bested another of the all-time super teams of the Valley, scoring a 31-9 win at Harlingen in a 1989 fourth round classic that was televised down here and drew ridiculous ratings. A year prior, Judson lost to Dallas Carter in the finals (“Friday Night Lights”) but was later declared champ when the Cowboys were deemed ineligible. In 1990, Judson was a step away from the trophy, dropping a decision to Marshall of East Texas.
In the 1990s, Judson was equally incredible and was a consistent performer in the state final four, winning it all three times in four seasons starting in 1992. It perennially tormented border teams, dismissing McAllen (1992); Harlingen (1994); and EHS (1998). The Rockets went to the finals in 1996 and 1998, losing both times but in 2002, defeated Cedric Benson’s Midland Lee juggernaut, 33-32. They continued to thrash Valley outfits, including La Joya (2004); Harlingen (2005); and La Joya again in 2007. That was back when La Joya had just one high school. The Rockets were beaten by Euless Trinity in the money match of 2005 and again in 2007, its last finals appearance. Six wins and four losses in the Ultimate Game!
After that, Judson has labored to keep its high-tone shine, as more and more schools have opened in the area; since 2007, the Rockets have made it to the fourth round three times, the fifth twice, and their only recent playoff action against the border was 2018, when they decked San Benito 69-18. And really, that is still terribly successful: five trips to the Rare Air in 13 years. But for the nationally famed Rockets, not quite good enough. In 2021, the program stumbled to a 4-6 mark and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006!