November 23, 2021
By Greg Selber
So here it is. The Big One.
After the SaberCats registered a 27-24 victory in the area round of the playoffs Saturday, they turned their attention to the regional round, and for the fifth time in school history will now try to become the first Blue and Black edition to get past the third round.
Local No. 1 Vela is 12-0 after beating first San Benito (17-7) and then San Antonio Taft to advance into the treacherous midst of the finest football teams left in the state, at least as far as 6A Division II is concerned.
Coach John Campbell’s squad will travel to Corpus Christi to take on Vandegrift, the day after Thanksgiving, with a 4 p.m. kickoff time at Cabaniss Field. Fresh off a record-setting performance by senior runner P.J. Rivera against the Raiders of Taft, the Sabes know that the jib cut – to use an old sailing term – of the next opponent is far superior to that of Taft.
There are only four teams left in the region and the Valley’s got two, Vela and Pharr North. This is generally the stage that sees the RGV drop by the side of the road but hopes spring eternal that one of the two locals will smash past the gauntlet. It might be Vela; it will most likely not be North.
THOSE GUYS AGAIN
There has always been some confusion about just where Vandegrift is; some folks say “Austin Vandegrift” because the school carries an Austin mailing address. But it is actually part of the Leander ISD, and Leander – located 30 minutes northwest of the Capital City – is most definitely its own entity, having been established in 1882. So I don’t know. Even Max Preps situates the school in Austin somehow. Vexing.
At any rate, the school opened in 2010 and is named for Matthew Ryan Vandegrift, a native of the town who was a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq in 2008. Sort of a Pat Tillman vibe there. The Vipers have produced some great athletes in their brief history, including Paul Thompson, who played QB for Oklahoma, and Khiry Shelton, a soccer standout for Sporting Kansas City in MLS.
Under Coach Drew Sanders, the program has won 106 games and lost 41, launching into the Rare Air of the playoffs several times. The first was in 2014, when the Vipers won four times before losing to Temple in the state semifinals. A year later, they defeated Vela in the third round but lost the next week to Vista Ridge. In 2016 and 2017, Vandegrift was knocked out by Cibolo Steele, which makes its 2021 run all the more satisfying for the revenge motive, as the Vipers Steele-stomped in area. In most recent history, this club went three-deep in 2018, lost in area for 2019, and won a trio of postseason contests last season before being subdued by Hays, finishing 10-3.
Vandegrift 1.0 was an offensive power, scoring 719 points in 2014 and 605 the next campaign. The next version was better on defense, allowing just 14 ppg over a recent three-year span. This year, the Vipers have put up 540 points and given up a measly 140 in 12 games, which is about how Vela rolls (461 points, 93 allowed).
The foe for the regional round is 11-1, and was 9-0, only to lose against neighbor Round Rock, 38-20 in the regular season finale; they’ve toppled all other comers, including San Marcos in bi-district (52-14) and as said, Steele in area, 38-0.
Like Taft, the Vipers have a big, athletic quarterback in 6-2, 205-pound junior Brayden Buchanan, who has thrown for 2,627 yards and 37 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. Their receivers are tall, fast kids who average 17 yards per catch as a group; their main runner, Ryan Sheppard, has 1,163 yards and 17 scores in 2021. He also plays lacrosse. Seriously.
Defensively, Vandegrift has good size and excellent quickness led by senior Sterling Emerson (122 tackles); senior Slater Swartwood, a 6-2 kid who has 121 tackles; senior Tyler Harrison (13 sacks); senior DB Griffin Shaffer (3 INT); senior Max Uhl (103 tackles) and sophomore Alex Foster (105 tackles).
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
The game plan for this one will probably include more of the same business the Sabes employed against Taft, with so-called 13 personnel in what Vela calls the Ace package. Simply explained, it means that the offense will often have three tight ends, one or two on the line of scrimmage and one or two in the backfield. The “1” in “13” is the number of backs, the “3” is the number of tight ends.
It can also be termed a “heavy set” wherein the tight ends on either side of the setback – and here, at least one of the “tight ends” is actually more like an H-back or RB acting the role – are used to add extra blocking punch. The set is designed to maximize blocking power in order to consistently run the football. Even on third down.
Many times, one of the tight ends goes in motion, usually to end up outside the tackle, more or less, to at the snap block down/double or handle an end, outside linebacker, or strong safety, depending on who appears where for the defense. This means that on the stretch play or zone run, Vela gets as many blockers as possible into the teeth of the defense; the back, in this case Rivera, or perhaps Teddy Galvan, looks as he runs, sees where the open space is, and attacks it, ready to cut back or bounce outside.
This the Sabes did to perfection against Taft, as Galvan and Ryan Clough, Jaden Tovar, and Jaxson Shupe were the luminaries. Tovar and/or Shupe on the line of scrimmage in the classic tight end spot, Clough and Galvan in the backfield as two of the “3,” to follow the nomenclature.
Now, chances are that Vela (Campbell) knows that Vandegrift (Sanders) knows what the Sabes have done and will act accordingly. In two postseason wins, the Sabes have attempted fewer than 30 passes, throwing slightly less than they normally do, though the 2021 mantra has been more run-heavy than in prior seasons. Passing out of the heavy set, which is generally considered a short-yardage or goal-line formation, is not as easy as, say, out of the one-back set or empty (no backs). However, play action can work for a vertical shot downfield, as well as the release of a “3” into the flat, though the latter option has to happen fast.
Tight ends make tasty targets, as they erase the negative aspect of the Spread, which is: all the wides are receivers, the defense knows that, and there is no unsuspected option (aside from the occasional back) to sneak into the middle or arc across the formation on a drag pattern. Having no TE makes short yardage a dicey proposition, which is why one sees so many pure Spread clubs choose to pass when it’s third and 3.
Or perhaps Vela will come out with a multiple look, switching its personnel groups by the series or quarter and flowing back into the passing game that senior Chase Campbell has excelled at during stretches of the season. One imagines that sticking with one or the other tack exclusively against a talented crew like the Vipers is asking for trouble. So the safe bet is on a hybrid play chart that sets out to do Plan A until it meets too much resistance, and moving to successive derivations on the theme. And back. Like judo: use your opponent’s energy and motion back against him.
Suffice to say, if the Blue and Black can come out Friday and establish the run, they will stick to it until such time as it becomes prohibitive to do so. They hammered for 428 yards against Taft. But with a QB like Campbell, whose arm strength is immense and ability to toss the deep ball proven, the gurus on O might just seek to turn him loose, provided the pass protection can hold up against a Viper front with height and long arms. The classic Spread is designed to do that: set up the run by spreading the defense with the pass. The old-fashioned way used to be the opposite: run, run, run, and that sets up the occasional pass, often a surprise to safeties who have been gradually cheating up closer to the line to lend run support. Times, and formations, change, but the ancient football goals of deception and execution have not.
The chess game aspect cannot be overstated at this stage of the playoffs. Each of the coaches who has brought his club this far has been repping video by the hour late into the night leading up to the third round. They will be ready with a list of plays and adjustments to make on the fly; it often boils down to how the kids can read, recognize, and launch into improvisation on the bounce. If you read it too slowly in the third round, you run the risk of getting pulverized fast, and falling behind – on the up-take and thus on the scoreboard – and this is usually a dire predicament from which there is no return. Or so history has dictated.
THE HISTORY, OR PART OF IT
These two have faced each other once before, as many will recall, in 2015 as 5A outfits. The third-rounder took place at Alamo Stadium in San Antonio and was a real fireworks show, Vela collecting 644 total yards in a 49-39 loss. Vandegrift’s All-State runner, Travis Brannan, pounded for 430 yards and six touchdowns that day as the Vipers led 35-20 at the half and held off a late Sabe burst to move on. He later played for Navy.
The controversy over some offensive placards picking fun at the Valley, displayed in the Viper stands, some will remember. The less said, the better: different season, different fans (we hope) and stuff like that tends to get boring after a while. However: forgive, never forget. End.
Back to 2015. That was the Michael Salinas juggernaut that scored a program-record 602 points behind the lefty slinger Fabian Pedraza, illustrious Robert Guerra at RB, and playmaker Elijah Reyna out wide. Guerra ran for more than 1,700 yards that season and Pedraza passed for 23 touchdowns and only three picks. He was especially clutch in the playoffs, rushing for 394 yards in three playoff games, while Reyna, Michael Arguelles, and Eddy Luna formed a superb WR crew. The offensive line was formidable that season with bruising Jaime Alaniz leading the way along with Seth Palacios, Caleb Luna, and Joey Carreon. As good a line as the 2021 bunch, some would insist better. Argue.
This year’s Vela team certainly has an edge over its exes on defense, although the 2015 secondary (Taylor Clough, Johnny Davila, Erick Morales, Angel Ocanas) was tough and linebackers John Trevino and (the original) Ryan Rodriguez also first class. In 2021, senior Joshua Gallegos, junior Jake Dufner, and senior Nilson Garcia are an upgrade over the ’15 front. And the average points/yards yield is no contest, edge to the ’21 boys there.
Still, the 2015 team was the first to win two playoff games, stopping Porter and Victoria East to get to the Vandegrift challenge. That 42-33 win over East was monumental at Bucs Stadium in Corpus with Guerra cruising to 247 yards and Reyna making the greatest money catch in school history, a leaping comeback snatch from the defender on fourth and long; it set up the cushion score late in the day. Pedraza was amazing that afternoon with 161 rushing yards to go with passing prowess under pressure.
After an upset loss in bi-district to Weslaco East at home in 2016, the Sabes were back at it again in 2017, defeating Hanna and Eagle Pass before getting mercilessly socked by Westlake, 70-14. The Hanna win was of course the result of The Kick, Austin Garza’s Olympian 54-yard field goal in the final minute for a 34-32 home decision.
In 2018, Vela again reached the third stage, rudely dispatching Harlingen South and Laredo Alexander on its way to a rematch against Westlake, which it lost 28-0 albeit after a pretty solid performance. And the next season, after whipping Harlingen and Eagle Pass, the Sabes were knocked out by SA Brandeis, 21-14 in the program’s best third-round display yet. In fact, if the 2021 Sabes are chasing the crown as best in school history, they’re probably competing more with 2019’s group than 2015’s.
Now, after a second-round exit in 2020, the Sabes are back again to try their luck on the big stage of the Sweet 16. If they should manage to upset Vandegrift, the probable opponent in the regional final is Westlake, a nationally ranked beast that has scored 697 points and allowed 100 this season in going 12-0. The Chaps are set against Vela’s league mate, Pharr North, for the third round. The Raiders are 10-2 and rolling after a bi-district shocker over previously unbeaten South (56-26) and an easy romp over Eagle Pass in area, 56-28. Beating Westlake will be almost impossible, but PN is still one of three Valley teams left in the hunt.
The third is McAllen Memorial, and there is a connection there. Like Pharr North, Memorial was bested by Vela earlier in the year, 42-6, and two of its defensive standouts could have been SaberCats. Twins Jaden and Jalen Muhammad have combined for 165 tackles and seven interceptions for the 11-1 Mustangs, who face off against Corpus Christi Veterans in the regional round. Their older sister, Jaida, was one of the classiest all-around athletes in Vela history and their parents were both sports stars in the day. The Twins grew up around city sports and are now doing their thing for Memorial. Best of luck to them, and note, CC Vets has suffered some injury problems just now, meaning that the Mustangs might just be able to grab a third round W for the first time in school annals.