September 23, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game gallery
At the halfway point of the season, heading into a bye week, the city 6A football teams have had a good hard slog of non-district games, and each of them have their lessons, focal points, and areas of improvement to fine-tune before District 31-6A action kicks off in October.
For Economedes, Coach Raul Salas is working on turning his team’s strong conditioning into tangible performance on the field; the Jags struggled on offense against Brownsville Rivera Friday, gaining less than 100 yards and ending up on the short end of a 32-7 result to drop to 1-4 for the campaign.
Meanwhile, Coach Rene Guzman of EHS continued his club’s brutal but educational non-league gauntlet with a loss down at San Benito, to a Greyhound team that is unblemished at 5-0 as they begin the race in the Lower Valley league. Guzman’s kids are 2-3 as they prepare for the loop lid-lifter, at Mission Oct. 7, while Econ will be on the road at P-SJ-A Oct. 6 to get the parade under way.
Then there’s North, which cracked P-SJ-A Southwest at home Thursday to rise to 3-2 as the open week arrives. The Cougars of Coach Damian Gonzalez are the only one of the six combatants in 31-6A with a winning record, as the sextet has combined for a subpar 8-22 overall mark. Still, each of the local mentors are sure that the race will be competitive, despite the group’s struggles during the first half of the slate.
Guzman, whose team was swamped by the excellent team speed of San Benito in a 51-0 loss, has gleaned some positives from the trying night.
“Hats off to them, that’s a really good football team,” he said Saturday. “We were hoping to compete better than we did, but we are hurting right now, we had some kids out and it was just a tough deal down there. Playing a great team like that – and we’ve played several so far – shows the kids where we want to get, what we need to do, so now we have two weeks to prepare, get healthy, and be ready for district.”
Guzman, in his second season as head honcho at his alma mater, knows he has a solid starting group, but also says that the spate of injuries, on a roster lacking depth, has been challenging.
“We are going to regroup, prepare, try and get out kids back on the field,” he said. “In each of the games we’ve done some good things, and some we need to improve. We left some points on the board against East; played one good half against Weslaco and Vela. So we are looking to put four quarters up there against Mission.”
The coach praised the development of sophomore quarterback J.T. Santa Maria, and said that despite a long night against San Benny, he expects great things from the promising prospect.
“The game was coming at him 100 miles per hour, and that usually happens with a sophomore,” Guzman explained. “Split second decisions, it’s tough to do against such a fast defense; and that San Benito D is comparable to Vela, speed-wise. Santa Maria’s perception will sharpen as he gets more experience and I feel like in time he could be one of the best that’s come out of Edinburg in some time.”
Santa Maria will be aided by the return of a healthy Noel Serna. The speedy gamebreaker spot-played against the Greyhounds but Guzman made the call to hold him out for the duration as he’s still recovering from a pesky ankle sprain.
“It’s been frustrating for him, we know that, but it was important to have him OK when district gets here,” he said. “He’s got two weeks now to get healthy and he is going to be huge for us heading forward.”
The Bobcats will be on the road for the first two league nights, following the Mission trip with a home game versus Econ, where they will be visitor.
The Jaguar team the ‘Cats will face has gone through its share of growing pains as well in 2022, but Salas believes the learning curve has been productive, for his players and for himself.
“I realized that it’s different from being an assistant; we all know that, but when you see it on a daily basis, it really hits home,” he said about the jump from assistant to head coach. “I am starting to get on top of all the extra things a head coach has to do, getting all that tucked away before the week starts. That way I can concentrate in practice, more details, play calls, all of that. My goal is to have the other stuff handled so I can then spend more time on the field, with the kids, at practice. It’s been a real process of learning for me.”
On the field, Econ has been up and down, as expected, but the Orange is building from the ground up, and Salas is learning to have patience with that. The Jags have a new starter at quarterback, stocky sophomore Juju Eguia, and in the second half against Rivera, the youngster started to percolate, throwing a 41-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Sanchez.
“He was basically stepping in for his first game and he knew it would be tough,” said the former QB standout at North. “But I think he did alright, especially later in the game. He’s got some work to do with footwork, timing, but he will work hard and give it his best. He’s in a bunch of good sophomores we have. I say it like this, in a boxing comparison: this year they have their gloves up, taking shots, covering up, surviving; next season they will start jabbing and countering; and when they’re seniors, they’ll be throwing blows, being aggressive, winning fights.”
Along with a bunch of promising 10th-graders, Salas has a handful of juniors perfecting the drill and in time, a super junior high and freshman group will bring the Jags back into the mix. Lack of seasoning and game knowledge have hurt the effort.
“Right now, we are struggling with things the kids will eventually get, and we hope sooner than later,” he explained. “Like against Rivera we scored and then we got the ball back after a punt, and if we had scored right there, we are right back in the game. Your young guys sometimes don’t know how to seize the moment and run with it. But every time they are in that situation, they learn better how to handle it.”
Salas says that in two weeks, the Jags will be rested and well drilled, ready to try and get into the playoff conversation. He thinks they have a shot, as long as they continue to learn football, stay in shape, and keep faith in the process.
“I know it’s tough right now, but this is what it takes to improve and be a winning team,” he suggested. “We have good numbers now, lots of youth and talent, and now we just have to hang in there and climb up, day by day, even play by play. We’ve lost a few kids but we have a nice core that has bought in, so let’s see what we can do in district. I learned back in the day to take a shot, gamble sometimes, when you’re the underdog, because it can pay off.”
Salas and his staff have achieved a pattern with their kids, and they know it’s only a matter of time before the program starts making waves.
“They know what we expect, on and off the field,” he stressed. “We are doing tutoring sessions so that the guys don’t have grade issues, and we seemed to come out well during the last reporting period. That shows me the kids want to play and they know we are asking them to work on the books, as well as football. All kinds of learning taking place, man, so we’re excited, even after some tough games in non-district. We are all 0-0 right now, and the kids know they have a clean slate. What’s done is done, we’re moving on and we’re going to get better this season, and surely next.”
In the loss to Rivera more than half the leading tacklers were underclassmen, with juniors Charlie Bell and Chris Perez both enjoying active evenings. End Geronimo Villarreal, a senior, roared in on the pass rush consistently, and finished with 10 tackles. But the top performer from Friday had to be right corner Iram Vazquez, who battled the Raiders’ 6-foot-2 star receiver to a standstill out wide. On one first half sequence, Rivera picked on the matchup three times, and lived to regret it. Using footwork and timing, the shorter Vazquez made the play every time, knocking a ball down on the slant, leaping to legally faceguard and deny on a flag/go route, and finally coming up with an acrobatic interception in the end zone. Truly outstanding ability, technique, and effort from No. 20, who also made six stops and emphatically did what the coaches always ask: he left it all out on the field.
For Gonzalez and North, the future cannot come fast enough, as the Coogs have carved out three wins in five tries, and now prepare for La Joya. Saturday he watched the school’s volleyball team pound the Lady Coyotes into submission, and plans to do the same Oct. 7 against a La Joya group that has gone 0-5 with just 48 points scored so far. The Coogs dropped a shocker to La Joya last season and that will be more than enough reason for a big opening effort from the Old Gold.
“And we’re pretty much keeping it rolling during the bye week,” Gonzalez advised. ‘We will probably not be banging as hard, hitting as much, but the practices have to be like they are on the usual weeks. On one hand, we want a little rest, to get our legs back, but on the other, you can’t take it too easy during the off time or you won’t be ready to explode come Friday night.”
Like the Jags, North has been heavy on the educational side this season, instituting tutoring sessions and pressing the players to get their business taken care of in that respect.
“I think it’s gone well,” he said. “We have some guys who are leaders, some others who are improving, so we want to make sure they’re all eligible to play. First things first.”
On the field, Gonzalez noted that his QB, Oscar Campos, enjoyed a productive evening against Southwest, with a couple of touchdown strikes, and he expects that to continue as league play nears.
“He’s coming on at the right time, and we’re glad to see it,” said the coach. “We’ve got the backs, and our defense is looking good, so with Oscar starting to get going, we like our chances in district.”
Like Salas is finding out at Econ, Gonzalez understands the lengthy process every program always faces.
“It takes time, because once you get somewhere there are so many things to change, keep, or tweak,” he said. “I know how that goes, when we first took over here, we figured it would take some time, to get it where we needed to get it. For the kids, the coaches, it’s the process and sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it’s quicker. But you trust it, you work, and eventually good things will happen.”
So the first half comes to a halt, the second dead ahead. Each of the city rivals has enjoyed moments of glory, and each has seen obstacles and setbacks. Now it’s on for real, and the bye week could not have come at a better time, giving teams the chance to heal and rest, then get back at it, boning up on play calls, details, and the like, making sure they advance forward with a sunny vibe.
The strength of schedule has been off the charts, for a reason basically, as the city clubs have used a brutal opening act to toughen up, blood their youngins, and get ready to crash into each other come October. Everyone’s 0-0, but it won’t stay that way for long.