August 29, 2022 [updated]
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
The dusty archives of Valley football history, tucked away in their secret and secluded crypt, tell us that there have been some great border teams since the sport began in 1909, and every now and then, a dynasty. Definitions vary but the commonly accepted one for a dynasty probably features prominently a decade of real success; as in, your school might have gone 10-2 one season, 7-5 the next, maybe even 8-3 the next. But if the next three seasons you don’t get into the playoffs, well, that’s not a dynasty, it’s a real good run. Let’s see what two successive four-year classes of kids, cradle to high school grave, can put together, W-wise, and then we’ll talk.
For example, Weslaco from 1944 to 1955, best team in the Valley, plenty of playoff success, went all the way to the state semifinals in 1955, the senior season of legendary Bobby Lackey. Or Donna from the late 1950s into the next decade: always at the top of their league, deep runs in the postseason, obviously resulting in the state title of 1961 but continuing through the length and breadth of the 1960s. Multiple seasons in the state rankings. Upstate respect. For contrast, P-SJ-A, whose battling Bears went to the state final two years in a row (1962-63), but rather abruptly fell from that Rare Air perch, making just one more playoff venture in the six seasons following 1963.
Many folks will vote for the Edinburg Bobcats of the 1980s, who won a Valley-best 88 games during that span and accomplished a monumental feat under Richard Flores: they went three-deep in the playoffs three years running, 1982 to 1984, and were more than competitive against San Antonio schools in a trio of third-round defeats. Back when there weren’t four teams from each district in the bracket, not even close. Way tougher road.
Closer to today, we can say that there have been various dynasties, or maybe mini-dynasties in what can be called the Modern Era (more than one team from each district in the playoffs), and they would be Harlingen, Edcouch-Elsa, Sharyland, and Port Isabel, among others. Of the heavyweights just mentioned, PI might have the best argument for bona fide dynasty status, with a Valley record 45 playoff wins and 19 10-win seasons heading into 2022, all done since the mid-1970s. Yet, Harlingen, with 41 career wins in the postseason, has a strong claim as well. The Cards own 17 10-win seasons in their historical resume, two third-round playoff victories, many college players produced. Top team in the Valley for many, many stretches.
Upshot: It’s all about body of work, not just a shining season or two here or there.
The element that binds together the list of GOAT candidates is this: fear. When PI was in its first killer wheelhouse – 1978-84, when the Tarpons won 79 times, lost just nine, tying one – opposing teams would stumble off the bus in a panic, dread in their hearts. They were basically behind 7-0 or 14-0 before a ball had been kicked or a water bottle squeezed. Emotional defeat. Same with Harlingen of late 1980s vintage – in 1989 the Cards gave up just TWO points in district – or during the 2008-11 Manny Gomez masterclass that yielded a 47-6 record. That Joe Solis-led Edcouch bunch from the mid 2000s, which set a record for consecutive victories, was dominant, depressing to play against, and vitally, cocksure in the belief that a W was just written in the stars, every week. They knew it; the other teams knew it.
Forget about massive graduation losses, improvement of the rest of the foes, etc., because when the Tarpons, ‘Jackets or Cardinals of their Day took the field as warriors, death in their eye, twitching with anticipation, they KNEW they were going to win, and do it big. And so did the opponent. Done. Game as anti-climax.
THE LATEST KING
Apologies for that long-winded introduction, though such a diatribe leads us to the start of the 2022 football season, when the Rest of the Pack in the area has been looking to the future with greedy and hopeful eyes. Target: coming into the latest campaign, there was a city squad that had won 87 games in 10 seasons (nine really, after a winless first slog of 2012), registered five 1-loss seasons, and generally carved out a niche that should – given previous specifications – land them a place in the argument/conversation (difference?) about the best programs in the RGV the last decade or so.
That squad is Vela, and the question this season was generally: are they still the one? After a bushel of outstanding athletes walked the grad stage in the spring, people were wondering whether the SaberCats and their skill, speed, and execution, their penchant for game-cracking plays and their habit of destroying all comers with force and panache, might be reaching a partial abeyance.
Edinburg North was among those sanguine contingents this season, imagining that the worm may have turned, that Vela was going to – after eight seasons of rule from on high – return to the crowded pool of mere mortals, and that they, North, might be the group that could end the Sabes’ hold on the Rivalry Series in town. After 18 Vela wins in a row over their Cat pals, would this be it?
The answer, played out in stark drama on Friday Night at Richard R. Flores Stadium, as North and Vela went at it to lift the ’22 lid, was resounding and clear. Not only no, but helllllll no!
Of course, it’s super early to say with certainty that Coach John Campbell’s newest juggernaut will be able to duplicate the tremendous run of success the program started under former coach Michael Salinas and continued under the cerebral and driven latest coach. Lots of new kids, a tougher district, the Law of Averages and concomitant Law of Diminishing Returns. Right?
Right. But no.
In the space of a mere two minutes Friday, Vela was in a familiar place, the end zone. And after 12 minutes, the Sabes were flying, up 23-0 and having allowed the hopeful Coogs all of minus-2 total yards. A pair of thrilling bombs, a blocked punt, defense flying to the football to massacre the North offense in its tents, and there one had it.
The final score of 50-14 was as merciful as it was merciless, ironically, seeing that Vela basically coasted in the fourth quarter, playing No. 2’s and 3’s liberally from halftime on, took a knee inside the Coog 20 on a fourth-down, fourth quarter snap, and seemed to ever so slightly pull off its battered, wounded prey down the stretch.
The game was a message.
And the message was: those who have the temerity to challenge the Valley’s latest dynasty – and Vela makes the grade for this saintly status on the strength of proven body of work, indisputably – and those who think they can hang … like the old Magic Eight Ball used to say, head shaking … TRY AGAIN LATER.
THE RUN-UP AND THE FALL
It mattered not that it was sometimes hard to name the Blue and Black marauders as they ranged fiercely through the enemy camp, laying waste right and left. Unfamiliar names, for now/not for long. It also didn’t matter a whit which of the team’s three quarterbacks piloted the club at various stages during the one-sided rout; each of them would probably have a great chance to start for almost any team going west to east, Roma to the Island. And it didn’t matter that it was 2022 and not 2019 or 2021, 2015 even: Vela did what Vela does with alarming regularity, and that is make mincemeat out of whatever squad is brave enough to risk a full-out one-on-one tussle.
Much ink had been spilled in the previous weeks, over this or that school in the area that was entertaining designs on an upset. And the Cougars, so sharp and impressive in the preseason, were definitely at the front of that class of newbies, thinking that this might the year they could catch up to the Sabes and do some damage in close quarters.
And it may well be that Coach Damian Gonzalez’ refurbished club will still enjoy a banner season this time around. They have a little of everything: size and strength, speed and talent. But there’s a difference between a good football team and a great one, we have already parsed in some detail the factors involved therein. For now, the Coogs will have to peel themselves off the scrap heap, the burgeoning pile of challengers who have gone down fighting against the Vela dynasty. Because Friday, bro, it jus’ wunt hap’nin.
The bizarre thing about the vicious demolition witnessed at the Stadium was that despite the 50 points, defensive domination, etc., Vela did not actually play that great a ball game. Penalties were a dreadful nuisance for Campbell’s club, and so was sloppy play, as well as an uncharacteristic loss of poise at several instants (Spy. v. Spy, the kids fought a bit, it happens, no innocent victim or guilty perpetrator, just sayin bec. it’s football).
But in the main, Vela was on its game and North never got out of the starting gate, getting bum-rushed rudely to the ground and once there, getting stomped into submission in a startling object lesson and reminder of just how dangerous – and eventually deadly – the Sabes usually are.
THAT WAS FAST
A pair of penalty flags against Vela started the affair, as the stands filled with fans and onfield, the high school football cadre of journalists, photographers and the like greeting each other with friendly mumbles of, “Well, here we go,” and “Guess it’s on, summer’s over,” and “How ye been, man?”
Almost before the assembled notables had settled in, the ball had settled into the sticky mitts of Vela senior Carlos Tamez, whose 53-yard scoring catch from senior Bobby Garcia sent the band into rapture, the Sabe student section into derision (“Who’s ya daddy?”) and the whole challenge into question at 10:06. Peanut butter jam, sticky wicket for the Coogs.
Sailing a perfect ball on the deep post route, baseball star Garcia had silenced the sizable North throngs with a howitzer shot to the walls of the fortress. Bang!!! Oh no! cried one side; oh yes! answered the other. Again.
The Coogs took the kickoff against a Vela defense splattered with untested underclassmen, but found it daunting, three-and-out, thanks to a sack from defensive lineman Christian Rios, one of a bevy of trenchers who had a whale of a game. At midfield now, playing the field position chess match with the usual flair, Vela took off, but North got a tremendous series from senior linebacker Eddie Gonzalez, and held.
Breathe. Exhale …
On the first snap after North forced a Vela punt (Sabes punt less than any Valley team, look it up), it was the aerial circus again. Last season Justin Navarro made his name as a crafty safety and explosive return man of exquisite ability. Now he’s a receiver, and well, same pedigree. Sophomore prospect Myles Lopez lofted a pinpoint strike to Navarro down the left sideline, the ball missing the cornerback’s fingers by an inch or two and landing on Navarro’s. He sprinted down the sideline to a 14-0 lead at 5:09 of the first. Track man Keyshawn Garcia made a powerful rush to try and undo the do, and he is very fast. Navarro, however, was in his Zone Moment, and though he looked over a shoulder once or twice to gauge the threat, managed to complete the stirring 62-yard jaunt intact, and right then and there, there was no question.
It was for all intent and purposes, over.
Deflating for the Coogs, and one could feel and see the wind in their sails go slack, their belief and determination start to wither. Dynasties, devastation, desolation, dismantling, keep going. Dang!
Rios again, with help from energetic newcomer Branden Cantu, a stocky junior DL, overturned the apple cart on North’s next try, while junior A.J. Reyes, whom we now know is a two-sport star; baseball we knew, football we now know, also had a strong run out from the secondary. Punt, Vela pig.
When North’s Orly Gonzalez (he was his team’s outstanding performer Friday) came up with an interception, it seemed like the Coogs were about to rise, get something going, and stop the madness.
Some people had worried about the elusive and effusive Jake Dufner heading into 2022, an injury having kept him off the baseball diamond and out of the weight room for extended stretches of the spring. But come game time Friday, there was No. 99, reprising his role as league Defensive Player of the Year from 2021, portraying with ease his alter ego, Pirate Duf in cleats, the frenetic playmaker who can jet in, destroy the play, and engage in memorable dramatics via celebration. One of a kind. Midway through the first period, which seemed to last a month, Dufner stormed in to block a punt, Vela taking over at the North 8. Duf’s back!!!
Soon it was 21-0, with burly QB Braden Luedeker, a junior transfer, pounding in from the 1 at 1:41. Campbell says that his stable of passers can do many things, and truly, all three of the luminaries can scoot as well as fire bullets. Luedeker is the type of kid you have to find a place for on the field, a strong and relatively quick-footed stepper who takes contact and makes yards out of it. He rushed for 51 yards in 10 carries against the Coogs, often lining up at running back alongside Garcia or Lopez, the last a tall and potentially spectacular sophomore who has an arm that, well, it’s … a rocket. Absolute freakin’ cannon! Pretty ball, too.
This one was draining away fast, people, and it only got worse as the shockwaves from the blocked punt carried over to the next Coog kick, the snap to which sailed past the punter and eventually out of the end zone for a safety, making it 23-0 with scant ticks left in the first. Got there late? Too bad, you missed it. History. After a quarter. Rivalry shmivalry.
It’s not just passing, execution and finesse, plus special teams, though these have been the signature Vela items for years. The running game was also potent in the opener, collecting 195 yards, muscular senior Jamal Polley churning to 84 on 14 carries, change-of-pacer Dimas De Leon chipping with vision, quick cuts, and north-south tendencies. The rebuilt offensive line, replete with promising underclassmen, did its work steadily, dogging a slow-moving Coog bunch that appeared to gradually lag under the weight of the 23-point onslaught, as many teams have done in the past and many more will probably do in the future. The coach is looking to bring this group up to program snuff in the coming weeks and lauded his assistants on this count for having done great work with the New Hogs in recent weeks of preparation.
The offense continued to benefit from pos. field position in the second period, beginning a drive from their own 43 following the post-safety free kick, and driving to a field goal by senior Eduardo Valdez, his first of two on the night. The only thing that kept Vela out of the end zone was not a thing, but two top Coogs, Federico Cappadona and Garcia, who combined for a third-down Red Zone stop.
As suggested, North has some horses in 2022 and will be in the race for a title from 31-6A, all the way. This was just not going to be their night, and now the Coogs need to regroup, forget, and reload for what comes next. Sometimes, a huge loss early can crater a club, shatter its belief, so North will have to gain distance and remove from this debacle, sooner than later. After all, it’s Vela, man. Only one game, nine to go … ready, break!!
NOWHERE TO HIDE
Even when North broke through on Friday, re: a fine 52-yard touchdown bolt from lively junior Ulysses (Ulises?) Melendez at 7:37, the Sabes didn’t blink, and replied by driving 62 yards in 11 plays for a 33-7 lead at 2:39 of the half. That’s the dastardly part about them. It’s not just long gainers and quick-firing bombs. This team can march the ball downfield methodically, which is how the sequence unfolded, Polley running hard and the others pitching in, the line smashing holes into the North front. Luedeker finished the march with a 4-yard blast, and as halftime neared, the Coogs punted away yet again, unable to get untracked against a Vela defense that enjoyed a super day, allowing just 194 yards of offense, at least half of the total coming against non-starters after the blowout had commenced in earnest.
Second half highlights included a second blocked punt (Reyes of the Sabes), which led to a short touchdown run by B. Garcia, and a fabulous 28-yard score from Polley, who disappeared under a pile of North defenders before extricating himself through leg strength and sheer desire, re-emerging to race full steam into the end zone. SaberCat junior linebacker Robert Cantu (six tackles) had made an INT, paving the way for Polley’s gem of a run. North managed a 25-yard scoring scamper from Chris Barrera to make it 47-14 in the third, before a field goal by Valdez, and the fourth arrived. Nothing to see here, move along.
Vela’s defensive front – with Dufner, Rios, Alexzander Sotelo, and B. Cantu – was formidable, while linebackers R. Cantu and speedy Julian Guevara were terrific. Adrian Alvarez, a third ‘backer, had some serious sticks in the opener while a sophomore DB, Luis Garcia, put himself about consistently, finishing with seven tackles.
THE NEAR FUTURE
Those wanting to check in on the latest iteration of the Vela dynasty will soon have to do so on three straight Thursdays, as it turns out, because the Sabes – after taking on another Rival, EHS, Friday – will be at Weslaco East Sept. 8; at home to McAllen Memorial Sept. 15; and at Pharr North (ding ding ding!! Game of the Year) Sept. 22, all Thursdays. The Bobcats, come to find out, defeated McAllen High in their opener, and were the only one of six 31-6A schools to avoid a loss in the opening week. P-SJ-A was obliterated by its rival, the Raiders, while Mission was bested by foe Vets, La Joya beaten by Brownsville Rivera in a 7-0 snoozer. North, we see, has lost its first, while Econ did the same over at Donna earlier in the week. Who wants that title?
To run down the list of Vela accolades: six titles; seven seasons of 400 points or more; 40.2 ppg the prior eight seasons; Campbell’s record of 52-8, for the best winning percentage of any RGV coach ever, min. 30 victories. All of it is beyond impressive, to say the least.
But here’s another metric, and you can hang your hat on it. In 25 contests against ECISD foes, the SaberCats are now 20-5, with 19 triumphs in a row; the average Blue and Black victory margin in the four-squad City Rivalry Series: 23 points.
Since losing badly to North the first two seasons of their existence, the Sabes have taken seven in a row from the Coogs, scoring an average of 42.1 points, allowing 10.6. Friday’s 50-14 wasn’t quite as ugly as last year, 63-12, technically, but it might augur deeper meaning, in time. For those predicting a return to reality in ’22 for the Valley’s No. 1 team, a downturn in fortunes, a chink in the armor of the program everyone hates to play … it might be a bit precipitous to thus prognosticate.
There are desperate battles yet to be fought, in a district full of quality programs who will not look kindly upon the Blue and Black 5A invasion and potential usurpation of their spoils. And who knows how the Sabes will hold up down the road; even the Port Isabels and Harlingens of yore had to go through ups and downs, this is the nature of football, and of life itself, and there is something refreshing in that realization.
But for now, Friday was a sure sign that Campbell and his horde of aggressive, agile attackers are ready for the wars, brimming with talent and confidence, steadfastly believing – as all dynastic powers must – that they will win, that it’s almost their birthright to do so. Opponents feel it, and they fear it. And it’s been that way in the game, since 1909.