August 25, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
DONNA – There were several moments Thursday that qualified as Key Junctures, inflection points where the ultimate result was up for grabs, and the combatants had to execute, or else.
Though the Jags ended up with a number of positive signs during the debut of new coach Raul Salas, they did not do as well he might have liked in the clutch times, a handful of ill-timed mistakes leading to a 26-6 road defeat at the hands of another program seeking a leg up after years in the wilderness, Donna North.
After giving away two turnovers in the first half – and seeing the Chiefs capitalize on them for 13 points – the Jags fell behind 20-6 by the break, and despite a spirited effort throughout, were shy of giving their coach a victory in his first voyage.
Econ’s youth and inexperience showed at times for the opener, as the lion’s share of tacklers leading the charts were underclassmen, but many of them displayed talent and promise. The team moved the ball well enough, gaining 228 total yards, and the defense was passable, allowing 287 to the Chiefs.
But in the second half, when Donna North took the ball and simply refused to give it up – the Jags had only two possessions in the final 24 minutes, minus a last-play that began a third before the final gun – The ECISD outfit wore down somewhat as the opponent steadily moved downfield. The D only gave up one TD after the break but could not wrest the ball away from the bigger, stronger Chiefs long enough for the O to get any real flow going.
Still, a whole bunch of new, excited kids were properly blooded on the varsity level, getting a chance to see what top-level competition is all about, and the few veterans on the roster now have a welcome task of leadership in the coming days. Econ has enough potential to feel as if it will be a factor in District 31-6A race in time, and the key from Thursday will be to observe, learn, and implement in the next four weeks, before the league season begins Oct. 6 at P-SJ-A.
Next up for the Orange is another Thursday encounter, at home against Brownsville Lopez Sept. 1. By then, the group will have assimilated what went right against Donna North, and what did not. Such is the path for a program looking to get back into the conversation and attempt to earn its first playoff trip since 2016. They did much well, but not enough at the vital times.
Always a pleasure to travel to Donna’s Bennie La Prade Stadium, though the drive over, no matter what route, was complicated by the interminable highway construction that has made the Valley into am obstacle course these days.
The stadium namesake was a beloved coach on the football staff in 1961 when the Redskins went all the way, capturing the Class 2A state championship. He also took the Redskin basketball team to the state tourney that school year, in the spring, a little known but fascinating fact of yore which would be a marvelous trivia question.
A wonderful statue of one of the stars of the Golden Era is displayed outside. Donna’s own Norm Evans, eventual Pro Bowl lineman and Super Bowl winner for the Miami Dolphins, was already at TCU by the time Liza Pedraza, Freddy Edwards and Alfredo Avila made their monumental exodus to the Promised Land. But he had helped set the table for the glory to come.
Now there are two schools in Donna, as we know, and all are waiting for the likes of Los Fresnos and San Benito to branch into multiple schools. Happens to us all eventually.
The newest Mid-Valley offshoot, Donna North, had won just six of 75 games over eight seasons coming into the 2022 season, but the latest edition illustrated in the opener that it is much improved indeed. The Chiefs were methodical and consistent Thursday, keeping it simple with a quarterback under center (an oddity, that, love it) and a battering running attack that kept the Jag defenders busy all night.
First though, it was one of the visiting backs who burst forth, as Miguel Sauceda broke a 30-yard scamper on the opening snap; for the game the slight but shifty and fearless newcomer would pick up 102 yards on 14 carries, but soon a dropped pass put the stops to a promising drive. This alternation between positive and not so was to dog the Jags all night, as it turned out.
When the Chiefs got the ball they moved it, although once in Econ territory, the momentum faded, thanks to a sack by the Jags’ Jose Vela, who steamed in to drop the passer after an initial disruption caused by teammate Geronimo Villarreal.
But on the first play after regaining possession, Econ fumbled it away at its own 22, leading to the first score of the game, by North at 3:06.
Again, Econ was able to generate life, earning a pair of first downs until a holding penalty ruined the drive. It wasn’t the number of flags on Thursday, as the Jags were relatively clean; it was the timing of the miscues that hurt more.
The Chiefs, pounding behind a good-size offensive line, were not fancy, save for a few end-around calls that surprised, and marched to a 13-0 lead three minutes into the second period. It was time to stop the bleeding or face a long night.
With sophomore Jonathan Flores at the helm, Salas’ group rose up and battled, going 65 yards in 11 plays to get on the board at 5:01 after a 6-yard run by Saucedo. Saucedo converted a fourth-down snap on the drive with vision and agility, and Flores ran past the sticks on a third-down chance to extend the foray. Then, behind the crunching block of senior Eduardo Davila, the Jags got into the end zone, making it 13-6. Then, a botched extra point. The pattern again: two steps forward, one back.
Jags back in the affair. But the Chiefs exploited a hole en route to a 46-yard gain directly after the kickoff, and soon improved their advantage to 20-6, late in the half. Recommended course of action after a score: get a three-and-out, versus the opponent erasing the six with one of its own. Growing pains.
Eager to continue to prove themselves, the Jags advanced. With Flores completing a pair of 13-yard passes in the two-minute offense, Econ rolled into good shape, but the drive in North land stalled out as the half ended.
STILL IN IT
After having gained 171 yards in the first half, the visitor looked to continue, and make more points from its yards. The D forced a three-and-out to start the third quarter and spirits were high. Flores led the team to midfield before a fourth-down pass attempt did not come through, from the Chief 32.
A conversion there, a touchdown, and the Jags would have been in business. Executing in the difficult moments will make the difference in 2022, as will managing to take yield from positive stretches, learning how to cash them in for markers. A work in progress for every school, especially ones trying to build a winning tradition.
For the rest of the third, Donna North plunged ahead despite the best efforts of a defense that had lost leading tackler Vicente Aguirre to an ankle injury back in the second period. Cranking off 16 plays on a very long excursion, the home side got into paydirt at 9:45 of the fourth, after converting a trio of third-down tries and one on fourth, to boot. The conditioning that Salas stressed since Day One had made a difference so far, but the truth is, the D was getting tired. Just didn’t have time to refresh and reload. No shame there. Just facts.
But the other aspect of the Salas master plan, mental toughness, now came smartly to the fore, as instead of hanging their heads, the Jags refocused to try and rescue the day. They manufactured a lightning 53-yard run by Noel Garcia around right end to get into scoring position and bring happiness to the sideline and Orange crowd that had made the trip. But a loss of the ball on downs at the 25 of Donna North showed that Econ has work yet to do in completing promising sequences.
After that near-miss, the Chiefs once again embarked on a keep-away routine, running 10 plays and wasting what was left of the clock, finishing the lid-lifter safely in front.
Along with the input from the runner Saucedo, the Jags got some solid catches from veteran J.C. Balderas and intermittent push from the line led by the bruising Davila. Defensively, the loss of the physical Aguirre was a definite downbeat, but Cruz Gaitan’s unit benefited from a series of sharp performances. Sophomore Mikey Garcia, late of Edcouch-Elsa, was active from his safety spot, making seven tackles and flying to the football. Defensive teammates Adrian Fernandez, a junior, was in on 10 stops, as was senior end Ramsey Ramirez, while Ivan Avitia and aggressive Gael Gonzalez made eight each.
Ramsey Vazquez contributed seven tackles, including a ferocious second-half lick on a North ball-carrier that dislodged the ball, though it landed out of bounds.
In all, the Jags were competitive in the opener, as Salas had planned, but they did not come up to scratch in the departments of opportunism or consistency. In future engagements – games with Corpus Christi Carroll, Laredo LBJ, and Brownsville Rivera follow next week’s clash with Lopez – the Orange will work toward converting their chances, limiting turnovers, and keeping the faith while they get further experience in the Valley wars.
This is a basically new club with few returners from last season. At times, they played like an inexperienced unit, at others they showed the promise that has their staff excited about what is to come.
Bottom line, it’s a process in progress now, and Econ will get back to work as the experiment unfolds, hoping to sharpen various aspects of the game and learn better how to handle the pressure of the bright lights. Thursday was the first shot across the season bow, and many twists and turns in the tale remain. Stay tuned on this team, because it has yet barely begun to fight.