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VELA SET FOR AREA GAME AT HOME; TAFT RAIDERS (9-2) COME KNOCKING SATURDAY

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November 17, 2021

By Greg Selber

Does one see the stars floating into place, beginning to align, and promising an opportunity of a lifetime? It certainly seems possible, on first blush, for a number of reasons.

Start with the site. When Vela straps it on for the second stage of the Dance, after having beaten San Benito in the first round, it will be the only Valley team playing on its home field. In fact, of nine next round matchups, only two are local, with the Harlingen-United South tilt out in Rio joining Vela-SA Taft, the latter to be contested Saturday at 2:30 in the friendly confines of Richard R. Flores Stadium.

So there are nine Valley teams left in the playoffs for area, if one includes MMA, which makes sense to do. This is a distressingly small figure until one considers the fact that after the most recent UIL realignment, border bands were thrown into competition with out-of-Valley comp a round sooner than in the past. The only classification where matchups were homegrown in 2021 was 6A, whereas all other so-called sub-6A teams had to take their shots against the GP’s and Flour Bluffs of the world, with predictable results. Six of eight 5A Valley outfits were blasted out of there, as only Mission Vets and McAllen Memorial survived to move on. In 4A, Port Isabel was the lone survivor, and so on.

Thus, from the standpoint of good omens, the SaberCats have to be feeling alright, having secured a home game in the quest to rise to 12-0 for the season. Everyone else is traveling this week, to San Antonio, Corpus, or Laredo mainly, although PI will be playing in the odd and dusty little outpost of Beeville.

The other factor to consider, besides the fortuitous coin flip for geography, has to do with the bracket. In the old days, a Valley squad could know that there was one local opponent on the docket, maybe two, and non-Valley second round foes were generally schools like United, Eagle Pass, etc., worthy teams but not Valley Week material.

No, that traditional bloodletting versus bigger, faster, stronger units from the Alamo City was a third round – regional situation – for years, and it doesn’t do us any good to recount how the RGV has fared … OK, we’ll do it. Only 17 times have the area football teams managed to win a third-round contest in the playoffs, and PI did it on a whopping five occasions.

Now in 2021, and Vela will go to battle at home against a raging powerhouse from San Antonio. No, not really. Do not interpret this as flippancy by any means, but Taft is nowhere near as awesome as Brennan, Steele, Lake Travis, Westlake, or Brandeis have been in recent times. And this another reason to be relatively confident that the area round gives the Sabes a shot at advancing to the regional quarters for the fifth time in 10 years of football life. It may not happen, but it might, whereas lining up to win against Steele or Westlake is a non-starter, realistically. So a third round spot is a possibility.

Vela made that grade in 2015 and then again from 2017-19, beating, in order: Victoria East; Eagle Pass; Alexander; and Eagle Pass again, all in the second stage of the journey. Reflecting the new alignment and its snags, last year’s playoff run ended in area with a defeat against a superior Brennan team which then lost to a more superior club, Vandegrift. You remember Vandegrift, the smart alecks with the quasi-racist signs of Thanksgiving greetings in the stands. Ah yes. More of them later … now is later. That school will face off against Steele in area, with the winner to advance on to take on the Vela-Taft victor. Vandegrift (10-1) and Steele (11-0) are most likely a bridge too far for the other two hopefuls, so let us concentrate on the Super Bowl, coming this weekend.

IMMINENTLY WINNABLE ?

For the season, the Raiders of Taft, named after the 27th (and heaviest) president and later supreme court chief justice William Howard Taft, are 9-2, having whomped Del Rio in bi-district, 42-7. This has never been a football power, though, since the school’s inception in 1986; in fact, last season, when Taft went 8-4, it marked its first winning year since 2004.

Lifetime the Raiders are below the .500 mark, though there were some glory years. In 1993 they went three-deep and a step further in 1997, losing to Katy in the state semis. In 1999 the Raiders made the third round, only to be derailed by the EHS magical mystery tour that won three times that postseason led by the equally magical Robert Vela. Taft had its best season soon after, in 2000, winning four Second Season affairs before dropping the state final by 1 point against Mesquite, 14-13. In 2004 they went four notches up the bracket, finally dropping out against Smithson Valley.

And last season, to restate, was a return to prominence after more than a decade of irrelevance, included a forfeit win over Pharr North in area and then a season-ending blowout at the hands of Buda Hays, 62-41.

The Raiders, off last year’s showing, were picked No. 2 in District 29-5A by Texas Football magazine, and that is how they finished. That mag by the way predicted the order of finish in 31-6A almost without a hitch, somehow selecting Juarez-Lincoln ahead of Econ … Come on, man, as the president would say.

After a 6-0 start, they Raiders were beaten by Brennan and O’Connor, the latter a 3-7 team this season and indeed, Taft endured some odd results leading up the playoffs. One was a 2-point squeaker over a Stevens club that dribbled to 1-9 in 2021. Another was a 1-point victory over a Holmes program that finished 5-5. On the other hand, Taft clocked a pretty salty Marshall 11, 41-21, and got past playoff-bound Harlan, 42-35.

They average 34 points per game but give up 22, do the Raiders, and at this stage, knowing what we know, the area round clash is about even. Giving Taft some credit for a tougher schedule (they beat Seguin and Warren in non-district, and both made the postseason) in a tougher area, it nonetheless makes sense to say that if the Sabes were to of their own volition choose a SA school to meet at this stage, Taft would be super close to the top of the wish list. And yet … it won’t be easy.

The Raiders have a bona fide threat at quarterback in senior Justice Hurt, who has rushed for well over 1,000 yards in 2021 and attempts about a dozen passes a game; he heads a run-first outfit with good quickness and decision-making. He is about 180 and will take off, sometimes on a planned run, sometimes on the scramble. Good moves, think Landry Gilpin. Or Kai Money. Or even Rolando Abrego.

T.J. Andrews is the set back of note, a 6-2, 185-pound junior who is near 1,000 yards for the campaign. Dude isn’t going to play at Ohio State or anything, but he is a capable high school runner. The Raiders have a 6-3 receiver, Jared Criswell, who leads the squad in catches and TDs, but his numbers are not gaudy due to the scheme, which is: spread the field and see if the backs can get loose. Often the quarter. Having worked against several running passers this season, the Sabes, with their fast and agile D. should be able to find that Hurt chap and stay with him. Of course, sure tackling is a must: Taft is not an enormous team but is still bigger than most the Sabes have seen (Memorial was beefier in spots, Harlingen as bulky up front), but the skill guys for Taft are bigger and that means the possibility of broken tackles. Wrap up. Come in packs. To the whistle.

The Raiders have some athletes on defense, including safety Demetrious Hicks and linebacker Pierce Parker (200, runs a 4.6), while the d-line has two hefty guys, Luis Miranda and Jude Villarreal, who go about 250 each. Should be interesting to see the Vela running game (and screens to the backs, extension of the run) against those hosses.

Taft was all over Del Rio like a pair of slacks last week, scoring all 42 points in the first half and then coasting to the Dub. In Vela, they meet a foe that will not be intimidated, and one which received a well-timed wakeup call last week in bi-district. The Sabes struggled at times against San Benito but were never in serious jeopardy, though the 17-7 final was not what the rooters have become accustomed to. No matter, Vela made the plays when it had to, and now will be in against a program that historically has been no great shakes.

Of course, the past doesn’t count for much heading into Saturday. It will boil down to the week of work the Sabes put in, their learning process vis a vis the Taft tendencies, and improved execution in all phases. The at times underwhelming performance against San Benny was in fact probably a beneficial experience, as now the kids know that they cannot just dance out there for the coin flip and start winning.

Expect Vela to have all sorts of mad built up after a slightly drab home victory in bi-district, and look for it to try and lay it on the Raiders from the get-go. Having experienced some troubles running the ball the past two ball games, Vela will no doubt go back to the drawing board, knowing that as Campbell says, you have to be able to move the chains on the ground in the playoffs. The Taft game will also offer a chance for the passing attack, which was inconsistent but came up with the home runs when necessary against the pesky Greyhounds, to show its true stuff.

With a world beater on the horizon for round three, this is basically the season for Vela. The Sabes can very much win this game in area. To get to the regional round for the fifth time, they will have to be 100 percent sharp, and hopefully a huge and loud (let’s go!) home crowd will be there to see it happen.

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