September 2, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
Although it was a non-district game, due the sundering of the city quartet by the latest UIL realignment, it was still important, for many reasons. When EHS and Vela went at it Friday, Original Cat v. New Cat pride was on the line and the mythical City Championship too, although with the SaberCats now in 5A, the latter will be for least 2022 a truncated deal; the Sabes will not face off with Econ during this slate.
But one could tell how prominent the game was by listening to the two coaches, who work in the same town and yet are heading to distinct football corners in the coming weeks, Vela to join new pals Memorial and Pharr North, EHS to concentrate on Cougars and Jags and Bears, etc. Because each of the mentors had the other on his mind, after Vela’s emphatic 55-13 triumph.
“That’s what you face when you play a really good football team,” said Bobcat coach Rene Guzman, whose club is 1-1 now following the loss, having beaten McAllen High earlier. “The goal is to get better, and so playing quality programs is a sure way to test yourself. You want to be a champ, you have to beat the champ.”
Guzman’s group welcomes Weslaco to town Thursday for the third of five non-district matches before District 31-6A play gets under way in early October. As for the Vela game, he saw some things he liked, despite the eventually lopsided score, and these things go beyond the numbers.
“Sometimes I’ll be sitting in my office looking at our schedule,” he mused. “And I think, what the heck am I doing? But really, this is the game you want, you schedule the good ones so you can really know where you’re at, and these types of games help you build a mindset, climb up the learning curve. We haven’t reached the point we want to be at, yet. And I love that word, ‘yet,’ because it’s about the process, the growth. Tonight we took a step along the learning curve.”
For his counterpart, John Campbell of Vela, the night’s activity illustrated similar considerations, as the Sabes are also going through their own process. Like Guzman, the Blue and Black chief is dealing with more than just X’s and O’s. The Vela process so far in 2022 has homed in on experience.
“I was checking out our roster the other day, and we have about a dozen sophomores getting significant playing time,” he said. “Tonight, like last week, those young guys got a taste of it, and for them, every rep in this type of scenario is precious. At the midpoint of the season, usually your new guys, you can basically start to think of them as not sophomores anymore, they’re making the transition into being more experienced, they are playing more like juniors.
“But in the first few weeks, when the season starts, they can sometimes seem more like freshmen than sophomores. That makes the first several games sort of painful in a way, lots of mistakes, sloppy, but I would say that overall, we put a better effort on out there than we did last week.”
And each of the coaches, while stressing the improvement mantra, also showed respect for the other, and the other program, which is the sort of comity one welcomes from of such a group of leaders, and doesn’t always get. Guzman of EHS gave Vela credit for a performance in which the Sabes dominated, gaining near to 600 total yards and limiting the Bobcats to just 207, including a measly five first downs. The opposing coach was also complimentary.
“We noticed it when we watched their videos,” Campbell said about the O.G. Cats. “Kudos to them, they fought hard and the Bobcats will always fight you, they fly around out there, plus, they’re very well coached. It was a good test for us, and I think we realized what we need to work on.”
Campbell will take his team to Weslaco next, to battle the East Wildcats Thursday night. And he knows what he wants to see for Game Three.
“We’re not quite there yet as far as conditioning goes,” he explained. “We’re going to get in better shape as we go along, and one of the things we wanted to do tonight was to get up to the line of scrimmage and run plays fast. Pushing the tempo on offense, if you think about it, is a way to get your team into better condition, to be able to handle the quick pace. We were able to establish the run game tonight, though we probably would have liked to throw the ball more. But when you can get the edge in physicality up front, you go with it. Sometimes you take what the game will give you.”
What the game gave Friday was a melange of exciting plays, including a couple of home runs from the Bobcats and a series of grinding drives from Vela. It was only 20-7 at the half, and when senior Noel Serna burst through a hole in the Sabe middle for a rousing 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half, the zesty crowd had a one-score contest on its hands. A far cry from last week’s Rivalry Game when the Sabes slammed out to a 23-0 lead over North after one period, and never looked back. This one was more open-ended for a while, as the ‘Cats pulled off some tricks, scratched and clawed the whole way, and showed energy and belief if not offensive balance or the ability to slow down Vela’s methodical march to a mammoth total of 33 first downs.
Vela put the result to bed with 35 second half markers, rising to 2-0 before the last non-league game, at East, to be followed by the District 15-5A opener Sept. 15 against McAllen Memorial, at home. For the game, the Sabes ran 56 times for an eye-popping total of 481 yards, believed to be a program record, and as per the usual, field position was a friend of the Blue and Black. Of their 12 possessions Friday, nine began at no less than the Vela 44, and five started in enemy territory. The masters of the short field continually pushed the adversary into its own half, and also did their best to mire the ‘Cats in third-and-long situations.
Seize the initiative, do what you do, and make the other team unable to do what they want to do. Theoretically simple, its logic irrefutable, but yet hard to do, often.
That pattern began early on, after Vela drove to a touchdown on its opening foray. Senior Bobby Garcia smashed in from the 1 at 9:16, directly after a fumble inside the 2 was ruled a non-fumble, nullifying a Bobcat takeaway. After the kickoff, the ‘Cats were indeed mired near the south end zone, as a delay penalty and illegal substitution infraction put them in a hole. A series of poor punts was to haunt the “home” side in this one, and after the first such effort, Vela set up shop just 44 yards away from a quick 14-0 advantage.
But as Campbell noted, the ‘Cats will bow up to you, no matter what, and they lived their truth by snagging an interception to stunt the Vela try. Freshman Woody Villarreal came up with the pick, with help from senior Derrick Galindo, as a Sabe deep ball went to the defense at 5:30 of the first. This seemed to turn the tide a bit, and kept the Sabes from racing out ahead early, which they had done to perfection versus North.
But the EHS offense, with junior Ryen Abrego at the helm after returning from injury, was having a fit trying to move the ball. Led by marauding senior Jake Dufner, the RVHS defense used its quickness and aggression to keep the ‘Cats pinned.
So, Edinburg, which had shown guts and flair with an unsuccessful onside kick to start the night, gambled again now on 4th and 11. Serna lined up to punt but instead, took off around the left side, brilliantly hurdling a defender en route to a 27-yard run off the fake. After one more first down the Bobcats punted away but still, the attempt to throw a curve ball showed that EHS was all in, ready to throw caution to the wind, and the roar from the crowd was deafening when Serna took off on his scamper. A real Bobcat highlight. No, ya di’int!!! Yeah, ya did!
Unfazed, the Sabes came back with an 84-yard drive, showcasing their young but productive offensive line along with a running attack that has many interlocking parts. Sophomore Myles Lopez, who saw the lion’s share of snaps under center after Garcia exited the game with what appeared to be a bruised knee, was excellent for the most part Friday, completing nine of 15 passes and rushing for 75 yards. He is just now figuring out how good he can be, and the final answer might be somewhere near superb.
Lopez rambled for 18 yards and mix-master Dimas DeLeon jetted for 15 more. The Vela machine went downfield with clockwork precision until Jamal Polley, who picked up a healthy 153 yards against EHS as one of three 100-yard guys – the deceptive junior DeLeon adding 117, Braden Luedeker also cracked the century mark – crashed in from the 5 at 8:28 of the second. Polley has it all: speed and strength, balance and vision too, and on a night where recently graduated star P.J. Rivera was in the house, he (Polley) wore Rivera’s old jersey number (1) and lived up to the legacy of it.
At this point, with the second stanza rolling, it seemed that a blowout might be in the offing. But Serna, who has gotten stronger in the weight room following his junior season, was about to explode. On Friday, the ‘Cats only completed a single pass, but it was memorable, as Serna hauled in a misdirection screen pass and found a seam behind a pair of blockers, breaking free and cruising 74 yards for a thriller of a six-pointer at the 8-minute mark. Again, howls of delight from the EHS faithful, a chance to give some verbal grief to the rowdy Vela student crowd, and a 14-7 scoreline.
This thing was on. Perhaps.
Faced with a punch in the face, the Sabes got back down to business without delay, on a steady drive kept alive by a slick pass from Lopez to tight end Luke Esparza, turning a third down into first at the ‘Cat 40. Soon, after Polley ran for 13 and junior Luedeker for 13, Vela ran into trouble in the Red Zone. A pair of key stops from EHS senior Ramon Vazquez helped hold the rival to a field goal, kicked by senior Eduardo Valdez, at 4:46.
The Vela defense then made sure its offensive friends would get another chance, forcing a three-and-out. Dufner, mitigated somewhat by double-teaming EHS trenchers at times, made his presence felt nonetheless. On one first half series, he swam out and in, past an offensive tackle with a blur, and on his next step inside cracked the ball carrier to the ground. Fluid, athletic, cobra. And on the very next snap he roared left from his defensive end spot to corral an EHS runner with a slamming, wrestling tackle, spinning the man down with a flourish. Much of what the fan sees takes place when the ball comes outside, or on a pass, but close study of the details on inside action – if possible, from so far away – can tell much. Quickness in a short space makes a great defensive lineman.
Starting at the Bobcat 41 after a punt, that field position thing again, Vela appeared ready to widen the lead, and eventually would, though with another three points instead of seven. Campbell’s attack ran off 12 plays to reach the shadow of the EHS goal line, as DeLeon turned a third down into a first and passes to Carlos Tamez and junior Jaxson Shupe kept the ball busy. But when Jordan Ayala and senior LB Angel Parral combined for a crucial stop at the 1, the Sabes were forced to boot one. Junior Luis Garcia was the kicker this time, and his short punch was successful at 0:03, sending the Sabes into the lockers up, 20-7. Ayala has been a stalwart on the line for a long time now, a never-say-die hustler who makes plays; he was to finish the game with nine stops for a harried EHS D that wore down in the second half. Memorable was when Ayala raced downfield on kick cover to make a stick. DL doin’ that!
Angel Torres (nine hits) was solid vs. Vela from his LB spot, as was rugged Jonathan Maldonado, while the young free safety Villarreal was very impressive, logging nine tackles and the interception mentioned earlier.
ONE MORE BULLET
After having thrown down a couple of great moments in the first half, the speedy Serna of EHS was ready for more as the intermission expired. He put it into overdrive directly, zooming 75 yards to the house on the initial snap of the half, cutting the margin in half. Misdirection again. Later in the night, Serna would stand behind the EHS bench, sweating profusely, taking some water and breath. On a difficult night, he had been a real standout, giving 110 percent and showing that Guzman and EHS have a gamer with skills to count on in the coming weeks. Hero.
The hard part was that Vela also has its heroes and standouts, stacks of them. And the Sabes also have an almost preternatural knack for canceling out anything that might be done to combat them. To point, the Blue and Black series after Serna’s sizzle began inside the ‘Cat 40. This time it was Lopez, loping along three times for positive yardage until the powerful Polley piled in on a short TD, bringing the score to 27-13 at 10:13. There is the Vela dynasty in a nutshell. You pop us, alright, we pop back and in a hurry. Two minutes into the half, exchanged TDs, and the sudden hint of life from the ‘Cats was starting to subside. Answers.
EHS was unable to move it, as would be the case for the duration of the half, and again, punting woes gifted the “visitor” the ball at the 43 of the “home” side. But thanks to more defensive grit from Vazquez, and a fine play by senior LB Domingo Luevano, Guzman’s gang held the line, forcing a punt. Give EHS credit (which Vela did for the most part, there were no real moments of meanness or fighting, which is always nice), the effort was there, and so was the resilience. Bottom line, the ‘Cats faced a superior squad, without blinking. They made a solid account of themselves, and never quit.
Vela does make some teams surrender, as we have seen in the past. Not imperious or impetuous. Just confident. When you know, you know.
The end got closer soon enough, as Polley swept to a 23-yard TD at 2:40 of the third and later Vela added a 22-yarder from De Leon to go up, 41-13. Meanwhile, the defense was slamming away, with DL Christian Rios enjoying a terrific stretch. He’s aggressive and fast, and if you see a kid bounding up and down like a gazelle on a rock, following a defensive success, it’s probably No. 92 in the lead. He plays crazy, which we like.
The scoring parade ended with Polley again, fourth TD for him, outclassing a tiring D for a 32-yard jaunt leading to the final count of 55-13.
It was an odd game once one considers the statistical summary. Although they managed just five first downs all night and got most of their 207 yards (149 in fact) on two slices of magic from Serna, it seemed to an eye test like the Old Cats were somewhat more competitive than that. Senior Juan Davila assumed punting chores midway through and he lofted some serious blasts downfield, helping even up the field position battle at last. The defense came up with strong stops at times, enough to hold to twice Vela to field goals when it looked like touchdowns coming.
Both coaches came away from the Rivalry bash with questions answered, and more to come. Vela will see what the Wildcats have to offer next up, and then prepare for life in their new district. Other than the Raiders and Memorial, the rest of the gang is fair to middlin’ at best. Rowe is 1-1 after a loss to Pioneer and a win over La Joya, while McAllen is also 1-1 (lost to the ‘Cats, then beat Mission). Palmview may be 2-0, but strength of schedule is not their reality, as the Lobos have beaten P-SJ-A Southwest and Roma, while Rio is 1-1 (up against Roma, down to Pioneer), leaving 0-2 Lincoln. The two main other contenders then, are Pharr North and Memorial, the former having scored 90 points in victories over P-SJ-A and Los Fresnos (allowing 10), the latter standing at .500 following a 31-28 edge over Hanna but a 27-20 debit against Mission Vets. Back to work for the Sabes, and they will not look too far ahead, one thinks.
The ‘Cats, on the other hand, are looking to three more non-district workouts before it counts for real at Mission Oct. 7. The Panther squad they face next is 2-0 after beating Mercedes and Harlingen South, while East (road game Sept. 15) and San Benito (also a travel night Sept. 22) await down the line. East is 1-1, having lost the opener to Los Fresnos before getting well against P-SJ-A, 20-14. San Benito has started sharply, beating Brownsville Vets and Pace, and so Guzman knows the next three bouts will be challenging. The former East coordinator will get a chance to battle his ex- boss, Wildcat staple Mike Burget, and he will also eventually have some data; how will the ‘Cats do against East and how will Vela do against the same foe? Coaches may seem like tireless grinds with a single goal, but they generally also keep a section of the mind open for such pondering. Measuring sticks, comparisons, etc. They like to see who did what against whom, and to what effect, so they (and their kids) can be ready to change on the fly, adapt and adjust, and get the best out of every effort.
Thus, a long season and hopefully riveting season gets started in earnest, Vela as city champ again, 20 wins in a row now over the rest. North and EHS: trying to pick out lessons from their losses to the SaberCats and preparing for battle in a district where the aggregate record after two turns is just 3-9.