September 9, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
One look at their coach after the wild ride had concluded – a roller coaster of an Instant Classic with twists, turns, and surprises galore – told the tale.
Sweat pouring off him still, Damian Gonzalez addressed his ball club after its thrilling 42-39 home win over a talented Pioneer squad from Sharyland. Close observers noticed a fairly large blood spot splayed on his white coaching shirt. It might have happened in the postgame crush, when the Cougars boogie celebrates a much needed victory over a quality opponent. It might have happened when Gonzalez ran over to congratulate a player with a chest bump. And it just might have been when the Cogs were faced with a key fourth-and-2 late in the game, faced with trying to keep the lead despite the pesky passing exploits of the dynamic Diamondbacks. Because it was then that the fired-up head coach almost slammed his headset to the ground as he decided aloud, and loudly, “We’re GOING for it!” They got it.
Wherever the stain came from, it is a symbolic mark indeed of a team that came into Friday night’s matchup with something to prove. The Cougars had taken out Brownsville Rivera in their last action, a 19-9 result following a definitive and depressing demolition at the hands of city rival Vela to begin the slate. For a North program seeking not only contention but a title in 2022, this was the non-district tilt that would mean mounds, either way. In erasing the bad feelings after the opening day loss, the Coogs had been alright against Rivera, but a victory over the middling Raiders was sort of expected. This one, however, was not, against a 2-0 Pioneer club that only two years ago had become only the 17th team in Valley history to go four-deep in the playoffs.
And for a while Friday, it seemed like Pioneer QB Julian Valdez was going to make fans half-forget the ineffable yardage wizard Eddie Marburger, as he completed his first 17 passes in a monumental first half of passing prowess. Pioneer sliced and diced its way to 27 points in the first half as Valdez was 24 of 27 … seriously, he was. Darts. Bad.
North, meanwhile, rode outstanding kickoff returns – including a 90-yard TD from senior Keyshawn Garcia – to stay close, putting 21 points up there themselves. Leavened in there were several excellent decisions by senior QB Oscar Campos, the usual heroics from one of the Valley’s best secondaries, and several moments when the Coogs just wanted it more than Pioneer, if one can make such a subjective judgment. Doc Homer.
After the much-needed halftime break, the Coogs got the hang of defending against the slings and arrows of Valdez, kept popping people with abandon, and churned and yearned with the urgency their mentor had called for all week long. Friday, Gonzalez and his staff double-timed it on the sideline and their team responded by out-hustling the D-Backs into a 42-27 lead. And down the stretch, when some people might have expected a North comedown – local newspaper gurus went for Pioneer in prediction time, eight to two – the Coogs instead closed the deal with style, withstanding two late scores from Valdez and Co. to tuck away a very satisfying W.
His words to a jubilant group after the fact spoke volumes.
“This is what a team win is!” he hollered. “This is what it feels like; this is what it’s supposed to feel like! Helluva job tonight, especially the O-line!”
The anticipation for this one was high as a satellite, the atmosphere buzzing from the get-go. Pioneer started like a wildfire, zooming passes to the outside, ball up and out, quick-like, left and right: and the North defense knew it had a huge muster on its hands. Valdez was 6 for 6 on the opening drive, throwing to speedy and glue-fingered receivers, and the D-Backs went in for six at 8:12 after an 11-play, 75-yard masterclass in precision passing.
Right then and there, some naysayers might have been worried, but not the strapping Garcia, who eluded a mess at his own 20 on the ensuing kickoff, made an ankle-breaking stutter step at midfield, and regional-tracked it in from there, stunning the crowd with his strength and speed. Though he was to leave the game in the second period after having his bell rung, Garcia made one of the plays of the day, stealing back some confidence for his lads.
But Pioneer, coached by the former EHS assistant Eddie Galindo, was on its game alright, and answered with a sharp drive that only ran aground when DL Jesus Hernandez (eight tackles) located a fumble to stop the march at the North 29. Unfortunately, the Coogs fumbled it right back to the enemy at midfield and from there the cool gliding D-Backs launched out in front 14-7 in no time flat. This team was flat possessed in the first half, flawless, out for souls.
But North then got a superb kickoff return from sophomore Jose Ramirez (also to exit with an injury midway home) to start possession at the 25 of Pioneer, aided on the play by a 15-yard penalty against the visitor. At the 9:56 mark of the second period, Campos rolled right and trouble followed him, but he was able to alertly look left and see daylight there, scooting into the groove on an 11-yard touchdown run that tied the encounter at 14. Money moment.
As stated, Pioneer was otherworldly early on, and came right back with a 72-yard cruise, capped by its third TD pass of the half and a 7-point advantage at 4:38. This was ping pong football, boi, crazy good action, and the fans on both sides let us all know they were having a nice evening.
Just now the defense came to the party, the D-Backs forcing a punt and North following suit, thanks to a tackle-for-loss by senior Orlando Gonzalez and a pass defended by the livewire himself, senior Federico Cappadona, who was to enjoy one of his greatest gridiron nights before it was done. He took the subsequent punt back 30 yards to the enemy 43 and from there North set about tying the knot once again.
With Campos going 3 for 3 in the air, the Coogs did soon make it 21-all, and it was another brainy contribution from Campos that did the deed. Gonzalez, who worked all week with his line, cleaning up its steps and exhorting the group to have its finest hour Friday, went overload and unbalanced on third and 2 from the Pioneer 24. Campos looked out into a wide-open middle of the field and flipped a clever pass to freshman Tyler Ruiz, who raced down to the 2, from where senior Mark Hernandez bulled in with less than two minutes to play before intermission. This was the kind of heady play the coaches have been looking to Campos to provide, and he came through with the read, the reaction, and the execution.
This half not over yet, not with Galindo’s gang on its way to a massive 311 total yards in the first two periods. Breaking a 26-yard run, the D-Backs came roaring back as the half waned, scoring on a 32-yard pass with just five seconds to go. They did, however, miss the extra point thanks to a furious rush from Cappadona and teammate Sam Cerda, who made seven tackles on the night and would later add a key interception in the second half.
CAN THIS PACE LAST?
There had to be a way to slow down the opponent’s passing attack, and one such method was to control the ball as much as possible. Easier said than done, and for the night, the D-Backs would run a whopping 84 plays from scrimmage, North churning out just 48. But Gonzalez’ squad was going to make its snaps count while seeking some big-play magic from a defense that had started loosely and finished tighter to the line and careening to the ball with unmitigated madness.
The keep-the-ball part went well to start the third, as Campos led the Coogs on a 66-yard journey, getting a 33-yard burst from Hernandez (67 yards Friday) and one for 15 from junior trucking magnate Ulysses Melendez (118 yards on 12 carries, North amassed 233 yards on 36 rushing attempts). Campos himself finished the march with a 4-yard TD at 9:28, and the Old Gold did not miss the PAT. Junior lefty Ramiro Vargas punched it through for a 28-27 lead, one of six successful extra points he hammered Friday, with no misses. Keep that in mind.
Pioneer looked to still be in the Zone, but its ensuing 12-play drive stalled out at 5:06, with a missed field goal. Was this team going to turn into a pumpkin now, after such a tremendous opening thrust? Its chance at six had petered out in the wake of a marauding rush of the passer from senior Andrew Renner, and a lick from Cappadona, who was faked out by a pass receiver but refused to give in, racing downfield to clobber the kid from behind, as all legendary bandits will do with relish if the situation calls for it. Kid is a fiery comet with All-Valley attitude, hair, and game.
The later stage of the third saw Cerda come up with a pick after the ball was tipped by teammate Eliezer Cardenas, eliminating a Pioneer drive. The Burly Cardenas was insane in the membrane for this one, slamming to a team-high 17 tackles, and his heads-up hand on the ball engineered a simply priceless turnover. At this point, the D-Backs appeared a tad hesitant in the headlights, and North took advantage, clobbering them play after play, using its physical advantage up front to punish the fading Pioneer line. Jose Zuniga and Juan Alvarado, among other offensive hogs, took it to their foes with consistent effect and soon the Coogs had cashed in the takeaway. Melendez crashed for 26 yards to get the team in position, and his 18-yard run with 1:36 left in the third gave the home boys a 35-27 lead. Four plays, touchdown, and what next?
Cappadona what’s next.
Playing in a trademark, elastic Spider-Man crouch out on the left corner, the undersized leader with the heart of a titan quick-read a run, sloughed off his man outside, and came hurtling in to smash a runner, causing a fumble that was recovered by Renner at the D-Back 23. Absolute monster of a play there, and North took full gain again, Hernandez completing the surge on a short TD run at 10:00 of the wild, amazing, super-great game, score now 42-27. This was one was off the charts!
Having been stymied by North’s defensive adjustments – forced to go long now, way more often than they wanted – the D-Backs nonetheless negotiated their way to a marker at 7:32, as Valdez ran 22 yards to the house. That guy is fire. But again, a misfire on the special teams, a missed pass for 2 and it was 42-33, with plenty of time left. Sort of. A successful PAT kick would have made for a one-score contest.
Now came the heart attack, as Pioneer banged the ensuing kickoff off a North front fiver, recovering the ball (after some confusion) at the Coog 43. Uh oh.
Yes, uh oh.
With Valdez rekindling his magic, the D-Backs narrowed the margin with a quick TD, the short pass for six coming at 3:56. And we mean six, bro. Of course, they did not convert the kick, as Cappadona maniacally raged in to force a poor effort wide. This meant another dropped point, North clinging to a 42-39 lead and facing the challenge: two first downs, maybe three would do it, but first the Old Gold had to deal with a probably onside or squib kick. It was somewhere in between, literally and figuratively, but like clockwork there was the QB Campos on the kick team, diving on the pigskin with cool calm, disaster averted. Dude!
Then he and the Coogs ground out the first downs they needed behind an offensive line that had heard its coach’s challenges all week in practice. They had to be the difference, Gonzalez told them at each workout, at times getting down in a stance like he used to do each week with as a player with the Cougars of yore, showing them how to rip, step, and recover. Back when there was blood, sweat and tears on dirt and grass, you know. Now not the latter two, but oh well.
Melendez and Hernandez produced the stick movers and Campos, the guy who came through like a champ Friday after a slightly rocky beginning to his long-awaited chance of 2022, took the best knee of his life now. Over!
WHAT IT MEANS
Victory, against a quality opponent, and now North can say that this, this was the team it knew it had all along. Even after the dispiriting blowout loss to Vela, Gonzalez and his guys never blinked. And they meant for Friday to be a statement, of talent and purpose, ultimate objectives. And so it may turn out to be.
Cappadona, at the fore of the gutty collective accomplishment, said as much after the final whistle.
“We had to win, you know, or face having a losing record,” he began, sweeping curly locks out of a tired but happy face. “Against Vela, we know that hands down, we could have done better. But we had to put behind us because the past gotta stay there, in the past.”
Though he admitted that his heart sank for a sec after the onside kick Pioneer recovered in the fourth, the wiry little slayer knew that his team was up for it.
“It was all down to halftime, when we looked at what they were doing, and what we had been doing,” he explained. “They wanted the short passes but we tried to come out and take that away after halftime, make them go long, which they had to do, and it didn’t work as well.”
As for his coach, well, Gonzalez banged and barged his way through the event, getting his kids amped up or calming them down when they needed it. After one sequence in the second half, he stormed over the bench and got in faces en masse, reminding the warriors that they had to keep pounding, keep rocking the visitor, until they had done what they had come to do, which was win.
“Once we got rolling, we were really rolling,” he said, mentioning that the ability of the kids to change on the fly re: defensive alignment, after the break, was huge. “And as I said, we worked the linemen all week, really challenging them to play their best, to show the urgency a team needs in such a tough game. They showed maturity tonight, so many times they could have quit, but they didn’t.”
Gonzalez also praised his senior Campos for his poise, decision-making, and leadership.
“For him to come up and play like this, in this game, shows a lot,” he stressed. “He made all the right reads; he saw the game as it was happening and he needs a lot of credit for it. Lots of our guys learned a ton during this game, and it’s why we are playing some tough teams in non-district. This was just a fantastic game all around, both teams and we’re happy to have come out on top. Bottom line, we pounded it tonight!”
It doesn’t get easier for the Coogs now, as they prepare to take on Eagle Pass, a club that has started 3-0 and outscored opponents 142 to 34 in doing it. Then comes a relative breather (cuidado) versus struggling P-SJ-A Southwest on a Thursday, Sept. 22, followed by the District 31-6A lid-lifter against La Joya, at home Oct. 7.
For now, count the Coogs as happiest of campers, after they made it out alive against an aerial show that threatened to blow the doors off Richard R. Flores Stadium for 24 minutes. The aforementioned kids were fabulous, as were many others: take a bow active Lury Duarte; menacing strong safety Eddie Gonzalez; DB Adolfo Rodriguez, whose relief of Keyshawn was key; and d-linemen Joe Ramirez and Dominic Villarreal, who combined for nine tackles and displayed fresh legs in the late stages when they were most needed.
All around memorable night, Coogs at 2-1, and beginning to put the Vela loss behind them as Cap said. Eagle Pass is perhaps the top performing team right now out in the Laredo league, though United South mauled Pharr North for all it was worth before dropping a narrow decision to the Raiders Thursday.
One step at a time, but this win, and the way it was earned, all extremely potent medicine for the Old Gold. Now they just have to get Coach Damian’s shirt into the wash without too much delay. An unseemly stain will never do, for a coach and club that are back to hunting the major prize at the end of the 2022 rainbow. Season on.