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LEAP OF FAITH: SABES BELIEVE, RIVERA DELIVERS IN 27-24 AREA VICTORY OVER TAFT

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SIZZLING SENIOR SETS SABE STANDARD, 380 RUSHING YARDS

November 20, 2021

By Greg selber

Click here for select game gallery

Let’s see … which one was the best? Like trying to figure out your best birthday present ever. Was it the bright shiny new bike at age 8, a whole box of baseball cards at age 12 … or the slightly used car for the 18th birthday? All personal preference, so one’s favorite run from P.J. Rivera Saturday will be a matter of discussion for the next few weeks. More.

With the SaberCats facing a dreaded San Antonio team in the area round playoffs, the senior strider went absolutely nuclear, racing for a school-record 380 yards rushing to carry his squad to a 27-24 win over Taft and a berth in the regional quarters against an old friend, Vandegrift.

So, to select … there was the 75-yard racehorse touchdown in the second quarter, which put the Sabes (12-0) up 10-0, as they threatened to run the Raiders (9-3) right back to Northside. Then there was the gainer to the left side in the third, when Rivera blew into a defender on the sideline, shrugging him to the ground with pure disdain (gangsta) and sending the overflow crowd into orbit.

Some might say it was the 53-yard electric jam to the house which made it 24-10, directly after Vela had recovered one of four Raider onside kick tries, as it helped to quiet the disquiet seeping around the home side; Taft was starting to wake up. Later, there was a 52-yard breakout on which the most excellent runner appeared to be home free until a late high step allowed one of the Taft speedsters to run him down from behind. And for the clincher, maybe it’s the fourth-and-1 smash into the scrum that helped Vela run out the clock in the last two minutes, after the visitor had loomed within a field goal.

All of them were outstanding moments for Rivera, who erased the mythical icon that is Robert Guerra from the No. 1 spot. The latter’s 360 yards had been the program standard for single-season brilliance for five seasons. It had come in the legendary ball game where Guerra scored a Valley record nine touchdowns (two receiving) against Victoria East in 2016. But now it’s Rivera, who had toted the pig just 69 times in 11 previous contests before slamming and juking his way to a whopping 41 attempts Saturday.

But for some, the signature moment encapsulating Rivera’s gargantuan effort on the big stage actually unspooled after the victory was over. A few minutes after the final whistle, a tweet that was accompanied by a huge collective sigh of relief, it must be noted, Rivera dropped his helmet and sprinted to the student section. Chin-up onto the fence, and a perfect kiss planted on one of the gals who had gathered along the railing to celebrate the Dub. Being agile and strong enough to do that is one thing; it was the timing on this classic high school football snapshot – though P.J.’s not a quarterback and the kissee in question was not a cheerleader, per the usual trope – that was so striking. Without missing a beat, the Vela star had sealed the deal, completing the panorama – as old basketball commentator Bill Raftery used to say – with a kiss!

Just sheer perfection.

Rivera was already only the second Vela back to rush for 1,000 yards in a season (other, Guerra), back in his sophomore season, although Genaro Cavazos (holla, old school Vela, more than 900 yards in the maiden voyage of 2012) was close, as was the jitterbug Christian Flores (900-plus in two separate seasons for the Blue and Black). He, Rivera, was able to dance and dart, slither and slalom through the Taft defense Saturday. Fact. And that he was able to do so was of vital importance in Vela’s quest to make the third round of the playoffs for the fifth time. And after the Sabes had struggled to 96 yards rushing (3.6 per carry) against Mission in the season finale and then just 103 (2.9 per trip) against San Benito in bi-district, a stat sheet effort of 428 on 56 carries (7.7 per) against Taft was all the more tremendous.

How did it happen? To conjure the old blues staple, whose refrain was, “It ain’t watcha do, it’s the way how ya do it, that’s what catches on,” the fabulous ground exploits against the Raiders represent a matter of style.

It wasn’t what the Sabes ran, which was basic zone stuff, the program’s meat and potatoes, so to speak. It was the pace. The tempo, alacrity, and speed. The up-tempo game was in vogue Saturday, as time and again the Sabes hustled to the line of scrimmage to do their do. The Raiders often were caught halfway between lining up/shifting and getting the late call from the sidelines, many instances failing to get into position in time to forestall the rampaging Rivera. He ripped off gains in bunches and in all kinds of ways: smashing through tacklers here, zipping past them there, and sometimes providing both leans on the same snap.

He was just a man possessed, and his line worked at top efficiency and urgency, engaging defenders quickly and with force. As those Big Hogs carved out the holes, Rivera capered and gamboled through them, making one recall the way the great Guerra used to make defensive mincemeat on the field. Thanksgiving reference there, ask your grandparents, if they’s country.

Back in the day, Guerra, who amassed a Vela record 3,534 career yards rushing and 60 touchdowns in a mercurial and meteoric rise, would look like he was just coasting in the rocking chair, looking for a hole. But in a flash, he’d be off, making tacklers look like statues as he zoomed on past. For Rivera, the hitting of the chasm comes a bit faster, and he might have more raw speed than Guerra, might not. As far as strength, P.J. has a lot of it, even more these days after he’s hit the weight room hard. Robert was freakishly strong for a relatively little guy, people just need to get ahold of some of the videos, including one from the night when No. 25 abused North for 294 yards and four TDs. Outlandish.

As to who is the cockier of the two stellar backs … again, debate. Both had (one has) that swagger and confidence to back up every boast, neither could ever be confused with a wallflower, just leave it at that. 

But anyway, Vela moves on, and the offensive line must take a bow for its superb afternoon of domination.

Center Brandon Hinojosa had much to say about the up-tempo business, which worked like a champ to keep Taft off balance and flustered through much of the day. The Raiders had some good-looking athletes, for sure, but half of them were hands on hips as early as the second quarter, sucking some gas on a warmish November day.

“We had planned this all week, playing fast,” said the rangy captain of the offensive line, whose long arms and legs paired with short-space quickness and impressive punch makes him one of the Valley’s best. While he spoke, incidentally, Rivera was making his dash to the sideline and the leap to glory. “We wanted to get up there in a hurry, catch them while they were moving, waiting on calls from the coaches. We saw on film they had played against some slow teams, and we knew we could play fast, because we’re just a fast team, all around.”

Hinojosa relayed the 411 that during practice sessions leading up to area, Coach John Campbell and his staff spent beaucoup minutes stressing the approach.

“We’d get a drill where we had to run eight plays, as fast as possible,” the senior snapper said. “They kept telling us, run them fast and run them right, and we’ll excel; we did the prep and we came out here and executed. They couldn’t handle us. We were too fast.”

Vela’s center also added a philosophical bit about the ultimate meaning of the game. Amid the roar of the postgame party, he got serious for a minute. Almost literary.

“To me, this is the hardest thing a guy can do, playing football,” he mused. “The hardest physical test: you start playing this game as a boy and when you get into games like this, so much on the line, you’re a man if you can handle it.”

As the Sabes faced off against a foe from an area that has traditionally made short work of Valley teams – and here, one might suggest that Taft was not a Steele or Brennan or Brandeis, admittedly, but OK – they proved themselves quite well. Not intimidated, just hungry. And when the Raiders started getting their fearsome athletes unlimbered, scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns and coming very close to the comeback win that would have crushed a town, Vela did not waver. With Rivera cramming it one more time into the Taft line on fourth and short, they were able to run out the clock and send the invaders packing, back to SA and into offseason.

Vela: “Dude … sweet! Sweet … dude!”

Taft: “Where’s my bus?”

LET’S GET IT ON

It was an awesome day for football, that is, unless folks got out to the Stadium a little late for the 2:30 kickoff. An hour to go and many of the usual parking spots were long gone. It’s been eons since one could make that right turn past Pizza Hut (I know, I know, don’t try it) and see cars already stacked along the outside curb before the stadium turn-in. Good memories, long walk.

People had been saying that Vela might be the Valley’s last chance, after the border entries had dropped like moscas, one after the other, in two days leading to Saturday. Only Pharr North had managed to survive, and the Raiders did it with a bullet, hammering Eagle Pass with a 56-point outburst. The Raiders who came to town to battle the Valley had some scary looking dudes, as stated, and after the eye test, some people were starting to worry.

But other people did not bat an eye when the Sabes forced a three-and-out and then set sail on a nice drive, churning our four first downs to the Taft 11. However, a pair of illegal motion penalties gummed the works, and senior Job Juarez came on to knock in a 24-yard field goal at 7:14.

Taft is a running team, repeat after me … a 42-yard airstrike right up the gut saw the Raiders’ gigantic tight end rumble and growl down to the Vela 25. Ow. But here, senior tackle Nilson Garcia (one of his best games) and the defense knuckled up to turn the ball over on downs at the 18. With 4:27 left, the home side, which would eventually be totally full for the first time in ages (joy) was buzzing big. With Rivera cranking a 13-yard run and Justin Vega hauling in a pass of equal measure, the Sabes looked to get off again. Teddy Galvan, who’s churned for upwards of 900 yards this season, turned in a 12-yard romp and an 18-yard Rivera rip had the chains clanking, the fans hollering. It can’t be this easy, right? Right. Another motion call stymied the charge and Vela went out on downs after an incomplete.

But Taft could go nowhere, Dread Pirate Jake Dufner coming up with two stops as the quarter ended, Vela getting possession at its 25 after a punt. A 13-yard carry by P.J. and a 12-yard reception by Jaden Tovar were good for a spot at midfield, but the Sabes were guilty of a motion flag and a hold, though Rivera rescued them with a fourth-down slash for the sticks. This march expired after a sack, though, and Taft took over, determined to make some headway. Could’ve been dead already, really.

Trusty vet Ian Nova came up to put a mighty lick on a ball-carrier but a pass interference infraction on the next snap gave the Raiders a boost. But with N. Garcia in on two tackles (he stayed at home for the reverse, que rico), the Valley’s best D held again, taking the ball back at the 20 after a touchback on the punt.

The next thing anyone knew, it was 10-0 after P.J. detonated for that 75-yard scoring sprint at 5:03 of the half and absolute bedlam. Alas, Taft was ready with the rejoinder, a 47-yard run down to the home 28. Alas for the Raiders, the drive got no points, once again. For the most part, the Blue and Black contained the Raiders save for a few long gainers in the half; late in the period, the visitor cranked a 22-yard run and appeared to be score-ready. Third alas, Josh Garcia ballhawked an errant throw for an interception with 23 seconds left, whereupon two Rivers runs totaling 27 yards gave the squad a chance at a field goal, which sailed wide left at the horn.

Still, excellent half, Vela in control. Taft shuffling around trying to get ready for the next quick snap. They looked winded. But still dangerous.

THE BATTLE CONTINUES

There are many reasons why SA has generally whipped on its little football brother from the south, but don’t overthink it: it generally boils down to being better, partly because of the difference in population size, partly out of demographic diversity, and partly out of confidence/tradition. That’s why Saturday was a big deal, as the Sabes set out to put the lie to the old Valley Week syndrome. Any W for an RGV unit against the Alamo City is always a cause for rejoicing, from Roma to the Island and back again.

So Vela set about turning aside the odds and the predictions – though a healthy supply of pundits had gone with the locals in the various polls and pick-it lines, for one of the first times one can recall – knowing that usually, it’s only a matter of course (curse) before a fatal mistake against a bigger, faster, stronger team will lead to rack and ruin.

The thing is, Taft may have been bigger than Vela, and perhaps stronger (correlation there) but aside from a few choice specimens, the Raiders were not faster. At all. In fact, they played, as we have explored, somewhat slower. How much would that change in the second half, if any, was the question.

On their first drive of the third, the Sabes did not seem overly preoccupied with such ponderings, ramping up a 13-play, 53-yard march to get inside the 5 at the north end of the field. Here, they eschewed anything tricky, outside, and commenced to kicking on the door to the end zone. When Rivera barely opened it, pandemonium was the result at 8:01, plus a 16-0 lead that soon became 17-0 after the PAT. This was doable!

Now Taft had won nine times in 2021, and despite the fact that this team is a notch or two below the upper echelon contingents in San Antonio, one knew that a counterpunch had to be coming at some point. And after a 37-yard run got them fired up, the Raiders reached the Promised Land at last with, of all things, a scoring pass of 20 yards. This came at 5:40 and it was 17-7, and it got worse for Vela when the enemy pounced on an onside kick of extreme quality.

Now the Raiders got their game on, with their strongman QB and giant, long-legged tailback cracking off first downs and the Sabes starting to sweat and breathe heavy on D. Taft got to the 8 with a first down but on third and goal from the 6, junior Justin Navarro came up with a pass breakup to force a field goal late in the quarter. Game re-engaged, and what did one expect from the area playoffs, a cakewalk? Loteria?

But now, as if reading the script of Taft redemption and saying, uh-uh, Rivera answered, swooping 53 yards for the house after the Sabes’ Vega had corralled the onside kick attempt. As the quarter drained away, it was becoming apparent that Rivera, who had gained nearly 200 yards by the half, was in the midstream of a career day.

Next it was a defensive stand thanks to a couple of sharp plays from DB Josh Garcia, and a Taft punt. This was a key juncture indeed, because it felt like the Raiders were gelling, ready to end this nonsense and assert themselves as the rightful victor.

Vela would have to keep the pressure up with a solid drive and this was what transpired, as starting from the 15 after a punt, Ryan Clough produced a stick mover with a 9-yard run and Rivera then took off for a long scamper. He is no doubt a guy who thrives on attitude, and will gain momentum as he performs and postures, all in the best sense. His 52-yard run did not reach the end zone but did lead to another Juarez 3-pointer, from 26 yards out at 10:06 of the fourth. By now, Vela was just going to run it, and forget about throwing the ball much, seemingly a bit risky but calculated to run clock and stay away from mistakes.

It was working, and it was 27-10 heading into the homestretch. It was now or never for Taft, and the Raiders knew it. Forced to throw more than they normally do (Campbell’s rule: make the other team adjust to what you are doing, and not vice versa) they committed a holding penalty and then an INT by the energetic Navarro, who has his moments of juice not unlike Rivera. Let’s face it, if your team has no swag, it’s in trouble. If it has too much, ditto. Vela has a couple of guys who are not scared to express themselves, and although there is a thin line between confidence and foolhardiness or braggadocio, these outspoken cats seem to wear it well most times.

With the clock as an ally, Vela got started again, near midfield, but a hold and an INC thwarted the thing and induced a punt.

Taft wasted little time in responding, going all the way in a hurry on a 62-yard screen-pass-and-run that made it obvious that for the first time all day, the Blue and Black was getting weary. The propensity for missed tackles through fatigue is a truism of life after a certain number of snaps on a warm day. How much would it hinder the Valley’s best hope in the final minutes?

Matters became more fraught now, as up 27-17, Vela got the latest onside kick (thank you, Tovar!) but then committed a turnover when an errant pass was intercepted.

Oh boy, here we go.

Taft moved to another score but took 14 plays to do so, eating up tons of seconds but narrowing the gap to 3 at 27-24 at 2:57. Oxygen?

Anyone who has ever studied the onside kick knows that generally it is a tough tactic to pull off. Many observers note that about one or two in 10 succeed, for various reasons. Having hit .333 thus far on the attempt, the Raiders went to bat again, but Matthew Luna became the man of the moment, locating a bouncing ball to save the day.

All Vela had to do was take the rockski and keep it. Easier said than done but accomplished with aplomb through most of the afternoon. From the Taft 44, Rivera appeared to have made the mark, but the officials’ spot of the ball was, let us say “odd,” leaving the Sabes a yard shy of delirium. One measly three feet.

What does one do now, kick away and try for a last defensive stand against an angry foe finally feeling its oats? Cross up the D with a bootleg or rollout, or God forbid, a deep ball? The last, when done right, can be a knockout blow. For you. Or them.

Campbell has been saying all along that to win in the playoffs, against high-shelf competition, a team has got to be able to run the ball when it needs to. And now, Vela needed to. Period.

Luckily, Rivera had not yet returned from his trip to another galaxy, and converted the all-important run, a snap after he’d jogged to the sideline. A stinger, which is normally not a big deal, but if you’re a super runner who has suffered through debilitating shoulder injuries in the past, not so not big.

Where’s my cape? Rivera shrugged off the warning and came back for more, and this, beyond the terrific runs and the thrilling grandstanding that makes him the city’s version of Mishak Rivas, characterizes the kid in sum. Toughness, will, desire, all of it, and he made the sticks and the game was on ice.

Chills, bro, chills. We got ‘em!

THIS HAPPENED

Back during halftime there had been a chap walking around under the home stands wearing a black T-shirt showing an image of Rivera, No. 1, in all his glory. A relative perhaps, bossin’ threads no doubt. And the advertisement had come good now, as Rivera finished the job, a handful of his record-setting 380 yards having finally put the Raiders away.

Victory Formation, and on the sideline, a host of exes slapped hands, hollered to the heavens, and said, oh yeah. The ult. competitor, Mito Perez was there, and so was the sublime A.J. Sotelo (shades, always). Brandon Guzman and John Trevino, former Vela athletes now working their way into sports journalism, did no cheering in the press box, though technically they were not in the press box, so …

Everyone roared, and rightfully so. Victoria, Laredo, etc., good stuff. But beating San Antonio. In the playoffs. Shutting up dem clowns always a-yakkety-yakkin’ about Valley Week … the best.

Preaching in his sing-song cadence, obviously living the dream out loud and long, Rivera told the media that Taft had come to Vela’s house, but it had turned out to be the Pancake House. This impossibly witty bon mot was his way of thanking the offensive line. He discussed how the worry started to creep in on him late, after the stinger. And how he decided to blow it off and get back in, to – as he said – stuff it in their face one more time. Which he did. Walk the walk.

“I think part of it was conditioning,” said No. 1. “We were going to run, and run, and run. And we were in shape to do it. They had a little Cover 1, lots of Cover 3, and that means run it. I was just seeing what they had. The overflow to one side, and just going the other way, making my cuts and getting free.”

It sounds so easy when a superstar describes it. Try this at home and end up in traction, or a pretzel, or at least mighty tired. Try it in the second round of the playoffs and you’d better be … No. 1. Rivera. The maker of myth.

As for his part, Campbell was already ready for the next hill, though it be a mountain. He knows the Vandegrift coach, Drew Sanders, from their days together as part of the Alamo-area coaching fraternity.

“Teams such as Vandegrift, I look at as a template for what we are trying to do here at Vela,” the coach began, as his family stood nearby wearing big smiles. Including his mom and dad, boom, Parents Day!

“They are a poor man’s Westlake in a way, a very disciplined team,” he continued. “They don’t make mistakes, they execute, they’re not too flashy, they just come out and play good sound football with excellent athletes. This is a great challenge for us, an opportunity to show what we have built here. And it’s going to be tough.”

Campbell stressed that he is not conceding anything to the Vipers, about whom more in the coming days, right here. Just know that they clobbered Cibolo Steele in area. Bad.

“When you get this far in the playoffs, it’s always going to be hard to play well enough to win, for any team,” he suggested. “But with that said, I know we can compete with them, we’ve been competitive at this stage before and it will be a great experience for us – especially the young kids who will be coming back next year – to see what it’s like to be in such a big ball game.”

Vela has navigated its way to this same bend in the river five times now, and in the previous four, capsized against the raging current. As the Sabes prepare for the chance at school history, an initial third-round success, they can tuck away the area round result happily, all the while understanding that after a satisfying triumph against a longstanding nemesis, the slate starts blank, as of right now.

Wouldn’t have it any other way. Start Black Friday shopping now, turkey!

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