August 18, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
It almost reminded one of a rock concert, or even the local pulga on a weekend, as the atmosphere was pure bustle and excitement, people everywhere, buzzing noise, and the cars … the cars!!
As the scrimmage got going Thursday evening, the parking lot at North was jam-packed, shark drivers cruising down the aisles hoping to discover an opening but dozens of others already having made the decision: jump the curb, bro, forget about it. Texas is a truck state, as we know, and many fans had just bitten the bullet, launching up onto the outside grass to park, taking the not very long walk from outside the fence into the parking lot, thence on to the football stadium.
This phenomenon was rare for a preseason scrimmage, but was, it was, as purple clad Weslaco parents and purple- and gold-looking Mac High folks streamed into the arena, the honk-beep of their remote-control, finger-pushed locks sounding off as if part of a military procession and drill. They had come to Edinburg, had these rooters of ancient OG programs, to watch their teams do battle with the Cougars on a blazing, late summer day. No other way to describe it, the vibe was carnival, festival, optimism brimming to the top and everyone enjoying the safety of the scrimmage concept: if you get whipped, heck, it’s just a scrimmage. If you do well, yes, good, but, again, just a workout. Erbdy undefeated.
The tea leaves from such an exercise give hints here and there about what will eventually be, and yet they also leave much to be done and discussed, in the coming months. But as a barometer of interest and devotion, by fans and coaches and kids as well, scrimmages are an oracle. You get a sizable crowd to a scrimmage, and you know the feel, the scene, is indicative of promise, potential, and allegiance. Nothing like it. People care.
Inside the newly turfed stadium, the stands were quite full already, though the rotation of parents was already spinning, sub-varsity clans starting to make their exit, varsity contingents strolling in and gearing up for the action to come.
And in the end zone stood a man who has seen his share of scrimmages, games, struggles and achievements. Damian Gonzalez surely recalls the early musters that he and his Cougar teammates went through in the 1990s, when North was a nascent Little Brother seeking to carve out its piece of the rock against the Original Cats of EHS. Under Coach Robert Alaniz, the Coogs had proved them all wrong by completing an undefeated district title run in 1992, just their second go-around as a program.
Gonzalez was a rugged interior line standout for that crew, and though he probably didn’t give it much thought in the chaotic run-up to a new campaign, one of the schools coming to war Thursday, Weslaco, had beaten the Coogs in bi-district of that ’92 slate, a surprise result which still sticks in the collective town craw. But there they were, the Panthers, having missed the playoffs in 2021 and assuredly not about to do the same in 2022. Along with them waited a McAllen squad that won eight times last season under former Vela assistant Patrick Shelby, aided by the indefatigable mojo of his trusted assistant, Ernie Alonzo, also a known quantity hereabouts. Cool, capable dudes.
On the track, visitor side, was Roy Garza, current city AD and former North mentor, joined by Armando Cuellar, who won more than 80 games in charge of first the Panthers and later, the beginning, fabulous stages of the project at Weslaco East. As the two veterans chatted, watching the teams start the boogie, they reminisced about great moments gone by, about the way kids have changed these days (but not), and about what they missed about being football coaches. Shortcut: the interaction with the kids, that’s what they pine for on occasion, and most decidedly NOT the long hours of toil deep into the night, NOT the grind of an interminable season. Click, click, clickety clack, film done. Go again.
When Gonzalez, a successful Coog coordinator under Garza for many moons, came sidling over to greet the Lions of the Game, he shook hands and took a sec off from preparation to do what coaches love to do, which is shoot the breeze with other coaches, preferably older ones. Respect.
“Keep ‘em healthy, that’s the key,” Cuellar smiled at Gonzalez, Garza nodding agreement. After the current North coach turned back to the field and the task at hand, leaving with a grin/wave, the Old Guard heroes noted a few more historical tidbits, musing in recollection of football units from the past, and prepared to see what Gonzalez and Co. could do against their appointed foes.
And what they saw was, frankly, impressive.
Again, just a scrimmage, but if Thursday’s workout is a possible harbinger or blandishment of what is to unfold, then glad tidings await.
Because North was sharp, fast, physical, and determined, popping into the end zone twice while holding their visitors without such a perk; though they made the usual preseason mistakes: a fumble and a pick, some silly penalties, a few “who’s supposed to block that guy?” crises, it was plain to observe that this year’s Coog edition has a chance to make some real Valley noise.
During the course of the curious three-team set-up – six live quarters in all, four for the host – Gonzalez saw his deep and talented team exhibit the kind of fire he thinks might translate into a heap of wins in 2022. He said it himself, early on, that this year’s group is different. Their attitude, their commitment, and their desire, all pointing, they hope, toward a return to the top shelf of the Valley, something the program has been working at since the stretch from 2009 to 2013 which saw North go three-deep into the postseason three times.
And midway through Thursday’s work, when the livewire Federico Cappadona snagged an interception on the North sideline, all the energy and anticipation of a potentially special season came into focus. And earshot. The defensive back known for game-changing plays and subsequent celebrations found himself instantly engulfed by a teeming mass of teammates, coaches, even a few trainers, a pile of humanity that grew by the millisecond. The massive scrum of jubilant Cougars seemed to move as if it had a will of its own, pulsating with action, cries of happiness, not a little woofing at the other team, and just bona fide joy. Madness! What they play for.
Gonzalez came running over to the tumult, to crunch shoulders, exchange high fives – some missed, others not, the way it is – and keep in mind, he’s still a big boy, and can pack a wallop. The moment crystallized the larger Moment at North, and Gonzalez, after he helped extricate players from the mosh pit, repeated his earlier phrase.
“See … different!”
Indeed, and as the Coogs prepare for combat in 31-6A, the rest of the gang in that league lineup has to be thinking, awright, they’re tough! North has always been blessed with ample size and generally solid numbers; when they get off the bus, the other teams have usually been like, um, wow … they’re big! And now, as the latest season commences, it appears that the Old Gold is going to capitalize well on that factor, continuing off the bus and onto the field, where they stand a chance of racking up some serious wins. This might be, as they say, The Year.
Since going 21-5 from 2012-13, the program has scuttled along with 29 wins and 52 losses, though earning five playoff appearances in that span. Somewhat like the Cowboys back in the 1960s day, who had talent and dreams but somehow usually came up just shy of the mark, North is a group bent on achievement beyond basic, on scaling to the rare heights, and in 2022, Gonzalez has the kids to do it.
To canvass the wealth of excellent players on tap for ’22, start with the secondary, where Cappadona is joined by two genuine horses in Keyshawn Garcia and Orlando Gonzalez, the former a ferocious hitter with serious speed and the latter an opportunistic cat who, like Cappadona, makes plays routinely (remember the Pick 6 against EHS last year? Fastest play ever). Garcia was among the leading lights of a North track team that put together a tremendous showing in the spring now past, his coach suggesting that the winnings ways of the thinclads seems to have galvanized the football kids who were on the track, and that he expects the experience to filter over quite well. Success can become a habit, and an expectation, or not, we know.
As for linebackers, North has a proven banger in Sam Cerda and a headhunter in Eddie Gonzalez, while Eli Cardenas figures prominently in this group. Up front, where the Coogs have always used six or eight kids in rotation, look for youngsters such as Luis Ceballos and Dominic Villarreal, to make some ruckus; Villarreal broke in to capture the Weslaco QB twice in the early going, while newcomer Andrew Renner proved to a handful from his d-line slot. Defense, we recall, was one of the calling cards with Garza’s 2012-13 juggernaut (Lupe Q!) and a reprise might be on the way.
As impressive as the defense was against Weslaco and Mac High, the offense was equally potent at times, and here the Coogs return not one, or two, but three significant runners who are seasoned and ready to ignite. In Mark Hernandez, Gonzalez has a hard-working guy who is in tip-top shape for his senior run. He is also a guy who has taken advantage of the tutelage of a new Coog coach, Paul Alsbury, the larger-than-life legend who has been working with Hernandez on the fine arts of punting. In the scrimmage, the pupil crunched a 54-yard punt, turning it over almost like Hall of Famer Alsbury used to do with Southwest Texas State: ka-BOOM!
The backs will get their chances to run, but also to catch the ball, as this year’s scheme, based on Thursday’s rolls, will include screens and other routes for backs. Here is where Chris Barrera, a lugger of the rock from 2021, should come in handy with his elusiveness and burst. Like Hernandez, he’s come up with strong yardage nights in the past.
The wild card in the group is Ulises Melendez, who may be about ready to romp like a wild mustang after having shown glimpses of real ability as a sophomore. Tall and powerful, Melendez executed a couple of long gainers during the scrimmage, breaking tackles and pouring downhill. On a 50-yard touchdown run in the latter stages against The Mac, Melendez cracked off a pair of would-be tacklers and went from zero to 60 in no time, racing ahead of the pursuing pack for a touchdown that, like Cappadona’s pick, sent the bench into a frenzy of congratulations. Uli in the end zone: Oh yeah, that’s right, unhhhh!
These were the instances Gonzalez had been discussing beforehand: this team is aggressive, fierce, vocal, and proud, and squads that can marshal that spirit on a consistent basis – of course, it takes performance to do so, teams don’t get all crazy when they’re getting their tails beat – will probably be on the inside track of the race, not on the outside peering in, wistfully.
A bevy of backs, for sure, and the signature on the offensive document may well be the newest QB, Oscar Campos, a super-smart senior who managed the unit well in his snaps, making some sharp throws (delicious jump-pass connection on a screen, v. major traffic), secure handoffs, and correct reads and decisions. Son of the offensive mastermind of the same name, and also of the redoubtable star athlete and now Econ coach, Mari Campos, is to the manner born, as the phrase goes. He’s grown up around football, softball, basketball, in a first-class coaching family, and now he gets his chance to dial in and deal.
Though North said farewell to many of its leading receivers from 2021, when the team finished up with three straight wins and barely missed the Dance, there are several kids vying to get into the lineup. Sophomore Osmar Alanis and fellow newbie Tyler Ruiz will see time in the slot, and they are already looking dangerous.
The line is well stocked with seniors, including long-time contributor Jose Zuniga, among others, and one thing we can always count on with North: as an ex offensive lineman himself, Gonzalez always tends to focus on the development of the hogs in the trenches.
Coming into Thursday, the coaches were intent on getting the most out of the effort, versus two programs who have been around forever and have provided so many memorable pigskin snapshots through the ages. North, which has its share of outstanding periods, is about to embark on what the Coogs feel is a return to their rightful spot in the hierarchy. From the stable of able backs to the playmakers in the secondary – and adding in the Special Something that seems palpable in the early going – the Coogs are raring to go for 2022. The scrimmage was a great start, with a major league hurdle ahead.
Their first game of the regular campaign is an odd one, in a way.
Because it’s Vela.
The SaberCats have become the dominant force in town with a spotless Rivalry record dating back to 2016. In their first two seasons, 2012-13, they went 1-5 against their rivals, and then went down to 5A for two seasons. Since returning in 2016, it’s 18-0 for a scintillating overall mark of 19-5 in annual Catfights, average margin of 23 points per game. Now they’re in the midst of one of their periodic sojourns to a lower class, meaning that when the lid comes off the peanut butter this week, the Sabes-Coogs duel will be of the non-district variety.
That may be. But make no mistake: for a program chasing resurrection, the chance to spar with a Vela crew that has risen to the top of the Valley heap, it is enormous. Doesn’t mean that North won’t go 9-1 if it happens to lose out this week. But it does mean that if the tea leaves start to reveal their musings, and the Coogs should happen to end the Blue and Black stranglehold around town … just think of the raucous, rapturous celebration that will ensue. Pandemonium!!
It’s brings to mind the old song about Snoopy and Red Baron. And the reference is of course purely figurative:
“Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more,
The Bloody Red Baron, was rollin’ up the score,
Eighty men died, tryin’ to end that spree,
Of the Bloody Red Baron, of Germany.”
In essence, if you’re going to go to one football game in 2022, this would probably be that.