September 15, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
With 1:53 to go, it finally happened for the first time. No, not the weather, that had come in with a sudden vengeance right before kickoff, as darkness crept across the land in the space of less than 10 minutes, threatening and delivering an eventual and intermittent shower that ironically amounted to not much in the end.
No, with 1:53 left in the game Thursday, a bigger surprise.
As super soph Myles Lopez limbered up, back there, he almost looked puzzled, as in: let’s see, how does this work again? Though he’d well helped pilot the SaberCats to a gargantuan 63-0 destruction of visiting McAllen Memorial, Lopez was a little stiff. The backups had been in the fray for a half or more, bros we don’t know making tackles, the clock running surreptitiously during supposed stoppages, and so he had to re-warm a bit to prepare to get the kick away.
Amazing, they did it again. Absolute killers. Surprise that Vela was able to toy with Memorial with such ease? Surprised at a 4-0 start and an aggregate score of 222 to 34? These days, with the Dynasty, nothing is truly surprising. All in a day’s devastation.
In their first three outings of 2022, the Sabes had mashed the 50-point mark each time, and were going to go one level higher Thursday, dropping the Mustangs like a bad habit with a barrage of the program specialty, special teams excellence. And with a performance that would have hitherto seemed un-Vela like: by completing one pass. One. All night. Of course, that single connection was good for 82 yards and a touchdown, right before the half, making it 42-0 heading into the break. It’s not that Vela can’t throw the ball this season. It’s just that it doesn’t really need to (yet), such is the power of the running game and the game-breaking blitzkrieg from the kick teams. And such is the aptitude of the kids, in execution. And it’s not like this was a patsy or pushover, not even close.
This was Memorial, a perennial power with 12 straight playoff trips, six 10-win seasons, and a bushel of athletes who have gone on to play college ball. Memorial, long a Valley powerhouse.
But Vela viscerally erased the Mustangs, scoring four times in a torrid stretch of 5:33 midway through the first half, turning the ballyhooed Game of the Week into a Game V. The Weak. Stunning. But truly surprising? Not sure anymore.
ILL WIND BLOWING REAL GOOD
One has to comment on the weather, because it was downright odd. Sunny day, very hot, and then as the game neared, the wind whipped up from the south and brought dark clouds in ominous alacrity. Drastic, the type of suddenness that gets people chirping in the stands as a flock of birds careens wildly with the wind, winged creatures screaming over the field in search of safety. For a quarter or more, a patter of rain did fall, enough to bring out the plastic for photographers protecting their equipment and enough to elicit a bevy of fast-rising umbrellas in the stands. Pop, pop, pop, up they went, the rain dance drumming canvas, tat tat tat.
On the field, the patter would increase to a torrent as one team performed while the other held on for dear life, the latter not unlike the scattering pattern of birds, looking for a haven against the elements.
Nowhere to be found.
Once the football came in, with the wet, Vela was not yet ready to detonate, going three and out on its first possession and fumbling the ball away on it second. This showdown looked quite on when Memorial, which came in at 1-2 but was to leave at 1-3 and supremely dazed, drove downfield with three first downs to reach the Vela 20.
Then, the first demarcation point, as after the drive stalled, Christian Rios of Vela stormed in to block a field goal. Special teams. His defensive partner, Aleksander Sotelo, was chillin’ for the recovery, scooping the ball and moving on. Sotelo used to be a running back as a kid, and now he was back in his stride, steaming untouched with the blocked kick, cruising more than 60 yards into the end zone at 3:58 of the first. There are always turning points to a game, and this was a monster; instead of a possible early lead against the Valley’s No. 1, the Mustangs were behind, 7-0. And they would stay behind the whole way. Way behind, buey.
It’s all about field position with Vela, as we know, and now, the fearsome punt rush came to the fore. On the first Memorial series, Jake Dufner had come close to a block, leading to a poor effort from the Mustangs, ball at the enemy 46 for Vela. Though that try had ended with a turnover, this next Memorial punt – with defensive back A.J. Reyes nearly aborting it – flamed out after only seven yards, and the Sabes were in business at the Memorial 31. Short field, Dynasty bouta make short work. Lopez, he who would be the punter, every now and then, clipped in from the 1 on a fourth-down plunge at 0:09 of the first, and across the field, the Memorial natives were restless.
It got more.
The next punt snap, after the ‘Stangs had failed to move it much, was high, too high in fact, and it sent the punter back near his own end zone, in search. Reyes got there first and started to tackle the punter. Dufner, who spent the evening battling mammoth Memorial linemen in droves, was rather rude now as he blasted the Memorial punter with a punishing clatter, dislodging the ball and allowing a second teammate, the omnipresent Sotelo, to hop on the offering for a 21-0 lead at 11:34. Can you remember a defensive lineman scoring two touchdowns in a game? A half? Incredible. And yet it happened.
At this point it was like watching a desperate submarine crew realize that all was lost on the cold waters of the North Sea. Water pouring in madly. Last gasp. The end.
First play after the kickoff, Memorial fumble, accepted gratefully by Vela’s Branden Cantu. Soon enough, touchdown, courtesy of a 19-yard scoot from Dimas De Leon. At 10:25, it was 28-0, and the Five Minutes of Funk were past. Thrilling and chilling, death dealing to a Memorial program that had just never been beaten so soundly. Until Thursday.
The staggering visitor then managed a pair of first downs until the raging Dufner helped snuff out the tiny spark by batting down a fourth-down pass.
Then it was Jamal Polley, who has romped his way into contention for football honors in 2022, ripping off a 52-yard gain down to the Memorial 7, and scoring from the 1 seconds later for a 35-0 advantage at 4:16. This was getting out of hand and it got more so with 1:30 left.
Lopez rolled right, reversed his field in the face of opposition, and as he floated, found tight end Jackson Shupe. The rangy junior, wide left originally, had seen what was going down, and squared up 20 yards downfield, eluding his man – who had obviously not seen what was going down. Lopez winged a shot over the befuddled defender and to his man, Shupe, who hauled it in and set off in going down the field, showing almost as much speed as his dad, Gene, used to show when he was a top receiver for the Bobcats. Eighty-two yards later and people were starting to think, maybe let’s just go home. Shiz’over!
And the major mind blower over the 42-0 halftime lead, well, it was the opponent. No offense, but this wasn’t Valley View or La Joya, or Ben Bolt or Banquete. This was Memorial, one of the area’s proudest gold standard programs, with a history of success and then some, a school used to running the game, not taking the hit. Or a back seat.
But in scoring 50 or more points for the 22nd time in the school’s 11-year history, and coming close to matching the program record for largest single-game margin (65, from the 65-0 drubbing the Sabes hung on Laredo Alexander back in the area playoffs of 2018), Vela has added the Mustangs to the victim list. And introduced themselves to whatever this new, weird district is (15-5A Division I, book sez) with a mighty clarion call. The Sabes are now 3-1 against Memorial lifetime and this result, and the bam-bam way it came through, will be remembered for a lifetime. Not supposed to happen.
For the night, Vela picked up 385 yards, a solid amount but nothing unprecedented. Polley rambled for 168, De Leon adding 57 more, and Lopez continuing to show that he can tote it, as well as fire it. As stated, he didn’t have to throw when the special teams was throwing shells at a rapid rate, and the defense (which one pondered before the night) was exemplary in its performance. Long known for its huge and active offensive line, Memorial did have a huge line. Active, not so much, as the Sabes poured through them using superior team speed and flawless movement. A scrape there, a slant there, and Dufner sacrificing himself in constant double teams, allowing Sotelo and Rios, and the linebackers, to slide in and make tackles. The Mustangs gained less than 100 yards on the night, its power running attack never finding space amid a horde of defenders, smallish hornets getting angry hats on the ball and generally stopping any Memorial surge. Linebacker Demetro Sanchez was on fire Thursday with eight tackles while soph Derek Rodriguez made seven. Sotelo was surely Man of the Match based on his pair of memorable scores and a total of seven tackles, and LB Ryan Botello, slow to emerge in 2022 after a series of setbacks, displayed the Bottles brand with a half-dozen stops in the second half.
Not to be upstaged by the high-flying exploits of Sotelo, senior Justin Navarro raced 90 yards with the opening kickoff of the second half, making it 49-0, and later he returned a punt into Memorial territory – after a sack by Cantu – though the second Vela turnover ended that surge. It got to 56-0 late in the third, even though Vela was slowing it down, being class, getting it done but not rubbing it in. Polley, darting here and there with force, clicked off runs of 16, 15, and 12, the last one finding the end zone with 1:53 to go before the fourth. What is he supposed to do, not be great? Not gonna happen. Stop him. Polley was at it again down the stretch, firing 44 yards to the house and the final 63-0 margin. Just total.
Vela was able to run rampant on Thursday behind a line that is rapidly emerging as a fine one, good size and quickness, ability to slide off the first target and find another at the next level, all the good Big Hog things. Noah Rocha and Marcos Caballero have the look of the same type of gigantic yet mobile tackles that the Sabes have produced with consistency. Saul Ramirez and Ronnie Ramirez are heavy hitters from the guard slots, and they can get up and go on the pull, zone block or drive, and all these trench guys will pop ya, early and often. Schemes are always key, matching what you do with what you have, but this year’s Sabe line appears to have the right combination of ability, technique, brains, and sometimes most importantly, a decent dose of mean. They get after you.
The Sabes have scored more points in a game, such as the program mark of 72 against Brownsville Pace in 2015, or 70 versus Harlingen South and then P-SJ-A, both in 2017. The 63 they saddled Memorial with is behind the 69 over La Joya (last year), the 65 against Alexander, and tied with a 63-point parade against Donna North back in 2018. And then there was last year’s 63-spot over city rival North. Nine times over 60 now, and this latest salvo was the most compelling, given the level of competition.
Now it gets ever more interesting, as the Real Game of the Week lies ahead. Everyone has been talking it about for a while now, so Vela will head on over to the Tri-Cities to test the mettle and merits of the Raiders of Pharr North. Off to a great start in ’22, the Raiders went three-deep last season and though they lost some fine kids off that squad, are ranked near the top of the Valley heap, and rightfully so. They will get their chance to go toe to toe with Vela, but they might not want to use the tape from Memorial as a measuring stick. The explosion of special team magic is one thing, but if the Raiders think Vela will go another four periods with just one lone pass completion … well, they don’t, for sure, because they won’t. It will be the Full Monty on Thursday over there, everything Vela has against all that Pharr North can bring, and chances are, that will be a lot, on both sides.
Funny thing, the coach at Pharr North is a fellow well known to the RGV football universe, equal parts feared and respected. It’s Marcus Kaufmann, who has in recent times lifted the Black Attack back up to the heights it had periodically enjoyed under prior coaches such as Orlando Garcia and the marvelous master, Bruce Bush. And where did Kaufmann get his coaching chops in order, over a series of successful seasons? He was top assistant back in the glory days under Hall of Famer Bill Littleton. At Memorial. Yes, that Memorial.
Don’t think that Thursday means nothing to Kaufmann, though the handsome head honcho has traded in the baby blue of the Mustangs for the marauding black of the Raiders. Just a little extra subplot for the Real Game of the Week, coming soon for your viewing pleasure.