August 22, 2022
By Gre SelberClick here for photos
After a long and eventful road traveled since his days as a high school football star at North and then Blinn Junior College, he became a coach. And right off the bat, he showed a knack for it, connecting with kids, motivating them to work and achieve, and using his life lessons to instruct.
The post-football route eventually took him back to his alma mater as an assistant (twice), allowed him to learn program-building skills at Longoria Middle School during a wildly successful stint, and now seems to have wound up at the summit, out east.
Raul Salas, among the state’s leading passers in 1992 for the Cougars, is now the head football coach at Econ. A lifetime of experience and a track record of excellence, these have landed him the chance to resurrect the Jags.
“It was sort of a surprise at first, I mean, I only stated in July and there wasn’t much time to waste,” he said Sunday night. “I think I was in the right place at the right time, and I already knew a lot of the kids because I’ve coached here before, so I am just glad to get the opportunity. Time to get after it, time to coach!”
Salas takes over the helm from the departed Sean Van De Merghel, who led the Jags in 2021, and as he said, he’s been at the school since 2018, assisting ably in football until spending last year away from the field. He knows it will be a challenge, but he plans on bringing the Jags up, using all the things he’s intuited during the odyssey.
“We started with about 28 or 30 kids, and then they started to come back in,” Salas commented. “The turnout increased until we had about 100, 110 kids all told, and that was good to see. We have a lot of guys who want to play, and some are coming back after not playing for a year or two. At the scrimmage Friday we brought 50-some guys and every one of them got to play.”
Salas said that when Econ competed against P-SJ-A Memorial and Brownsville Vets last week, the focus was on seeing what kids could do what, and then acting accordingly.
“Now we have tape on everyone so we can start to correct our mistakes,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what, we did a pretty job in the scrimmage, we were making some open-field tackles, and working hard. And when there were some times where we might have given in, we didn’t, and I liked their fight.”
The new coach, only the fourth in program history, says that when opponents broke some long runs against Econ, the Jags didn’t quit on the play, and responded by running down the ball-carrier.
“It’s simple: it’s down to conditioning, and I am a big believer in that,” he stressed. “Sometimes you have a situation where coaches are scared to run their kids too much, maybe because they’re afraid they’ll lose them, I don’t know. But these kids, they know the reasons we are stressing conditioning, and they have bought in. So at the scrimmage, they were starting to show their fitness, they didn’t quit on any plays.
“We want to build physical conditioning and mental toughness, those are the keys. The X’s and O’s are great but at the end of the end of the day, you want your kids to be in shape so they can perform to their capabilities.”
The Jags, just 2-8 last season and seeking their first playoff spot since 2016, surely have the right leader in charge from many standpoints. Salas has always come advertised as a coach who is able to motivate and push players to improve and excel. He suggests that if this is the case, it’s because of an X-Factor.
“I have always been the sort of coach who wants to get to know the kids; find out what they’re like, what are they into,” he explained. “I know some of these guys’ families, too, and they know I am always going to be interested in them. I’ll go into the weight room and walk up and down, saying something to everyone. I think my players realize that I want them to play, yes, but also that I am trying to help them grow into the sort of young men who will be a credit to their community.”
It might be an uphill climb, but Salas is ready for the grind.
“It starts with numbers,” he noted. “If you have enough guys then you will develop depth, and that’s something we haven’t had at Econ that much. Our goal is to be able to fill guys in, when there are injuries or whatever, and know that there isn’t a significant drop-off. There will be some bumps along the road before it gets smooth, but if we can have mental toughness and physical fitness, I think we can be competitive.”
So far, the new mentor likes the fire of his guys, as indicated by the scrimmage, and he thinks they can come out and play four quarters, hard, every week.
“The better conditioned you are, the easier it is to make plays,” he advised. “The ultimate goal is to create an atmosphere where people want to come to the games and watch, and I think we have some kids who are going to help us do it.”
When he was in high school, Salas was, besides being a terrific passer (he can still name all his old receivers and linemen, and there were plenty of good ones), a baseball starter and standout in track. Back in 1992 he piloted Coach Robert Alaniz’ Coogs to a 10-1 season, throwing for nearly 2,000 yards; he’s still one of the finest passers to ever wear the Old Gold, on a short list along with Phillip Rodriguez and Matthew Munoz, among others. With linemen such as Ben Kaufmann (played for Texas Tech) and Damian Gonzalez (now coach at North), Salas was able to quarterback a title team in the school’s second year of existence.
He had a bunch of great receivers, remember them? They were everywhere! Sound off: Max Castillo, Edgar Anzaldua, David Ramirez, Mike Duffey, Mike Davila, J.D. Ramirez. They terrorized Valley defenses with Salas as the dart-throwing fulcrum. That season, North scored 318 points, still fourth in program history, and won 10 times, one of only three Cougars clubs to do so (in 2012 and 2013 came the others).
Then, he embraced the college football experience at Blinn Junior College, and awakenings there were many. At the next level, he was in with some real horses, such as running back Shon Mitchell (later played for Texas) and QB Michael Bishop (Kansas State). The year he went to Brenham, the program picked up blue-chip QBs in droves.
“That was a hard lesson, because back home, you’re ‘The Guy,’” Salas recalled. “Then when you get up there, there are a lot of players who were ‘The Guy’ at their schools too. It taught me to be patient and just keep working. I learned a lot that I am now using to teach and coach, and even though I didn’t play that much, I am using what I got.”
That is the thing about him: the kids know what he’s about, what he’s done, and they respect it. And as stated, Salas is the kind of guy who will, as he said, get to know the kids, help them along, be there. And that goes special for Econ’s incoming QB, Jonathan Flores. Tall and athletic, the sophomore has been under Salas’ wing now for about six weeks, and the results so far have the new coach excited.
“The thing is, sometimes you get young players out there and they look a little scared at first, you can see it,” he said. “But Jonathan was most definitely not intimidated, I thought he did a great job against some tough defenses. He got after it, he was tough.”
The coach and his signal caller are involved in a daily dialogue, as well.
“I’ll get out early with him at practice, and we’ll throw the ball, talk about stuff,” Salas said. “And I think that always helps, making a connection with kid. As for Jonathan, he’s really going to do well. He’ll run the ball, too, and that gives us another option.”
The Jags will assemble a committee to handle the running chores this season, and here again, the fitness angle.
“I learned in college that you might think it’s your time, but it might not be,” he said. “You just have to be ready, stay tough, and be in shape, so when you get your shot, you’re ready.”
All four main backs in camp will see ample touches in ’22, and Econ has a strong offensive line crew to shepherd them through.
“I think that this is one of the strong points so far, the line, they work well together and all of them have decent size,” Salas reported. “We have a guy who’s been on the varsity three years, Edward Davila, and he’s a team leader, on the field and in the weight room, and we have Jonathan Solis, he’s back from last year. All along the line, we have kids who I think can play, and this will be one of the keys to our offense.”
Tristan Galaviz and Ethan Davila are part of that trench crew, as is center Ruben Abundiz, and when the Orange has had a strong line in the past, good things have generally happened.
Returning receivers include burly J.C. Balderas and deep threat Ethan Barron, along with newcomers Isaac Sanchez, Jesse Carrion, and Raul Villarreal, who will all vie for playing time in what should be a solid group.
Defensively, the Jags will forge ahead without last year’s leading tackler, Tim Plata, who decided to forego his senior campaign. But there are some new faces that Salas is counting on to pick up the slack. He mentioned nose tackle Adam Lopez as a tough customer who has done well so far, and linebacker Jeremias Martinez, another fast starter in camp. In LB Vicente Aguirre, the unit has an honor candidate for sure, and the staff is penciling in the rest of the bunch in preparation for the season opener, Thursday at Donna North.
“I think our D showed it’s not going to shy away from contact,” Salas said. “We made some sticks, they played tough, so we just have to continue to get better, each game. I like that we used everyone in the scrimmage and we’ve told these guys, ‘Hey, you will eventually play, so be ready.’ That is where the depth we are trying to build will come in.”
When he was in high school, the Coogs ran and ran and ran at practice sessions, and it got them in shape to execute the action-packed and intricate Run and Shoot, the quick firing Salas at the helm. In college, he saw a bunch of student-athletes quit the team on the first day at Blinn because they couldn’t complete the back-breaking physical conditioning drills. That taught him the importance of working hard, getting in shape, and competing.
On the lower levels, Salas was a big winner, a motivating force for his kids, who responded by running through walls for him. He’s been a top-flight assistant for years, with innovative ideas and plenty of capital with the players. And now Raul Salas gets the chance he has been waiting for: head coach. He’s earned this position with a resume of excellence, a lifetime of lessons, and around town – even though we all know it will be fits and starts, a high hill at Jags, etc. – people are proud of one of their glorious local sons who has done great things, and they support him 110 percent in his latest endeavor.