September 22, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for Game Gallery
PHARR – Perhaps folks might have seen it coming, literally and figuratively, for any number of reasons, some of them logical, others more mystical. On the one hand, a program that had gone 48-3 in district games since 2014, heading into 2022, had to know that this sort of astronomical success could not last forever. Even the best of the best sees its lunch being eaten now and again, and let’s face it, any debit on such a sterling record can seem incongruent, confusing, i.e., “What? They always win.” Which no one does.
So it was bound to happen sooner or later, a night on which the SaberCats were not at their best, and conversely, when the opponent was approaching the summit of its prowess. Throw in the fact that Thursday’s loss came on the road, and we reach another explanation for the result. When a program has scaled the heights over time, it comes to expect – or should – that every other unit they line up against is going to approach the task with a little extra want-to. Or else be entirely intimidated and defeated before the opening kickoff.
Pharr North was most def the former Thursday, a squad with enough talent, bulk, and experience to stand up to Vela and shoot its shot. The Raiders were not intimidated or put off by the historical excellence of the visitor, nor were they unduly awed by the Vela Mystique, that special something previously noted which tends to give consistent winners a psychological edge from the get-go.
No, the Raiders didn’t flinch in this Game of the Week, not a bit. And they did something that reflects what can happen in a game featuring a marked contrast of styles. Sometimes one side can grab hold of the other, control the sway of the scene, physically, and emerge with a signature peformance.
That Pharr North was able to do just this, in the manner of a well-played 28-21 win in front of a massive crowd in excess of 11,000, is probably down to one major thing, although it’s risky to suggest such a singular determination.
The bottom line: PN was bigger and stronger, and leaned on Vela, pushed them around, kept the ball and grinded. The Raiders weren’t fancy and they weren’t dirty, but they were well conditioned for a long night of work. They just wore the Sabes down thanks to enormous, un-slow interior lines, didn’t make many mistakes, and took their chances as they arrived. They won.
The key stat from this one was time of possession, and lack thereof, as the Raiders of Coach Marcus Kaufmann ran twice as many plays from scrimmage as the foe. Every time Vela seemed to be ready to start performing at its anticipated and optimum level, something happened to gum up the works. But the truth is, the Sabes had a heckuva hard time wresting the ball away from the Raiders at all. Those big suckers just leaned, pushed, and like boa constrictors – when they got the Sabes in their jaws – they never let go. It was something to see. Classic 1970s smashmouth football. [tears]
For his part, Coach John Campbell of Vela was as magnanimous as anyone would expect given the circumstances, the ending of a 13-game league win streak, the loss of a No. 1 ranking, at least for the time being. And after the fact, the coach exhibited the sort of class he has always demanded from himself, staff and kids, something he nurtures for the duration.
“That was a rough night at the office, no doubt about it,” he sighed on Friday afternoon, his program now heading for the bye week with a slightly unexpected emphasis on how to handle what has unfolded. “But the bottom line is, as we told the kids: sometimes you win games you don’t deserve to win, and sometimes you lose games you probably deserved to win. I would say that last night the Raiders were the better team, we didn’t execute when we had the chance, made too many mistakes, and we had a big physical challenge on our hands.
“The Raiders, kudos to them, because they came in and played Big Boy Football … and at times, we did not match them well enough there.”
One glance at the two squads before the night revealed that on offense, Pharr North’s smallest lineman went about 240-245 pounds, its center was a 285-pound mauler, and the defensive line was almost as heavy, end to end. Refrigerators with wheels. So size was a factor. Style matchup warning: against a big, strong team, one that also executes, speed sometimes isn’t enough.
And once the Sabes started in on adjustments, to try and move people around, get more defenders up to the line of scrimmage, etc., the tweaks didn’t really register as well as the coaches had planned. Offense had the same issues.
“We normally pride ourselves on being able to make those adjustments,” Campbell noted, “and it allows us to weather whatever storm there is, regroup, and get back at it. For some reason last night, and I think the opponent had something to do with it, we just didn’t do as well on that as we usually do.”
For example, when Vela marched downfield to start the second half, down 14-7, the offense was soon into the end zone on a TD run at 9:21. Then, the defense got a stop, forced a punt, and the visitor had the ball at the Raider 46. Time.
Unfortunately, that break didn’t cash, as the Sabes ran out of downs at the 25, leading to a 75-yard touchdown drive that gave PN back the lead, a bulge never relinquished. If you take that stop, turn it into seven and a lead, whole different narrative.
That long march by the Black Attack took advantage of a factor Campbell mentioned in the debrief.
“We did alright on first down against them, but we didn’t do as well on second,” he explained. “That meant a bunch of third-and-short situations, and they just had the physical edge on us up front, and this is something we were definitely concerned with, coming in.”
On the other hand, the Sabes were struggling all night getting yardage on first down, as the run game bogged down (just 61 yards on 22 carries) minus leading rusher Jamal Polley, who carried a few times before an ankle injury forced him to the side for the night. Ouch.
Penalties were also a problem, as several personal foul calls extended PN drives, twice on third-down snaps in the second half. Facemask, horse collar, you know the list. Sometimes called, sometimes not.
“It wasn’t that they were bad calls, necessarily, by rule,” the coach said. “It was more the timing of them. Once we started to get clicking, we’re thinking, ‘Ok, here we go,’ but we somehow ‘unclicked’ every time … those penalties definitely hurt us.”
And then there is the psych angle. As stated, when you’re the big dog, everyone’s out to get you, they’ve had this game penciled in and circled for some time. But still, it can be tough to avoid a certain level of complacency. Human nature.
“I think maybe we had stars in our eyes a little for this one,” admitted Campbell, who indeed had wondered before the kickoff Thursday whether the matchup might have been overhyped a bit. Such is the fiber of the game in modern, technological times: this was all anyone was talking about. They say that social media was a battleground and an entertainment must-see, long before any fur flew on the field.
“A team always has to fight a certain sense of entitlement when it has some success,” said the man who has led Vela to 55 wins in 64 games, and so knows of what he speaks. “Teams are not just going to come out and lay down for you just because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. A winning program has high expectations, obviously, but the thing to remember is, the kids who built this program, won all those games, most of them are not here now. You earn your stripes week by week, and over time, the performance will speak for itself. We have some work to do on that, but it’s a process. Doesn’t happen overnight.”
As he works to bring his latest edition through this learning experience, Campbell has full belief and love for the group. He just wants them to take what happened on Thursday and use it to full advantage.
“You can say we were all humbled a little bit last night, and I was happy for P-SJ-A North in a way,” he said candidly. “They’re doing it right over there, they’ve got a real solid team, and I thought they were the better team Thursday, period. Now, do I think we could have executed better, done some things better? Yes, I do.
“But sometimes losses like this can be a blessing in the end. It stings, heck yeah, we don’t like the bitter taste from last night. But we can also learn from this; we did not play to our standards in any area, which was surprising, but now it’s back to work, seeing how we adjust and handle this. It’s a long season and who knows, maybe we might get to see them again down the road … wouldn’t that be something for Valley football?”
Before the night started over in the Tri-Cities area, electricity was in the air. When star end Jake Dufner sidled out to do the captains business pre-game, he was alone, four Raiders staring him in the face at midfield. The Black Shirt horde started filing in by the hundreds, eventually to fill in almost the entire home side, which is no mean feat. Thursday football, this was not. This was playoff football. Serious business. A game you really wanted to be at. Best.
And it was Dufner who made the first serious play of the day, imagine that, firing in to drop a ball-carrier for a 3-yard loss to end the first Raider series. That fourth down stop came at the Vela 26, as the home side had launched into a steady and deadly volcanic lava act that would see it tote the ball a whopping 60 times all told. Only five passes. Just pound it. The North QB, tough little Ale Aparicio, is normally a severe running test for any D, but he was notably gimpy in the early stages of the brawl, limiting his running ability. He would, however, gut it up on a few vital occasions down the road.
Vela went to midfield before giving the ball up, whereupon North ran off six plays before a leaping end zone interception by SaberCat soph Luis Garcia solved the problem. So far, sparring and maybe some nerves on both sides, but definitely gripping theater, promising much more to come.
Late in the first came a major lapse in execution, as a pair of motion penalties set the Sabes back deep in their own green. The subsequent punt was dreadfully low, and when it caromed off a lineman and went all of three yards downfield, North took over at the Vela 19, at 1:33. On the first play of the second, after a scoreless period – that is pretty rare for Vela right there – PN was in, 7-0.
Luckily, Kaufmann’s trickery on the ensuing (onside!!) kick was gathered in by junior Anthony Moreno of Vela. Soon, the game was tied after a nifty 34-yard touchdown scoot by senior Justin Navarro on the end around, this at 10:08 of the second.
Normally so grand on kick cover, the Sabes then allowed North to start outside its 40 following a crisp return, and came the grind again. Never many gigantic gains, but always something forward behind that mammoth line, size and strength negating somewhat the speed and agility of the smaller Vela defensive group. In 11 plays the Raiders had retaken the gap, as Aparicio faked deftly and then swept around left end from the 3 to score at 3:58. On that drive, the underdog converted two third-down snaps, and the knack for making such plays was a staple for the Black Shirts Thursday. Steady and clutch, not flashy.
For the fast-moving half, North counted 130 yards while Vela had sputtered to just 67, and a measly three first downs. The Sabes didn’t see the ball for long stretches of the half, and the worry was that, um, the defense had been out on the field for those same long stretches. Trouble?
WE GOT THIS
No trouble, mate, as Campbell’s crew came out renewed and not a little peeved at the turn of events. Down 14-7, the Blue and Black benefited from a 51-yard kickoff return off the wings of junior A.J. Reyes to re-tie the affair. That runback got it going, and then more playmaking from an awakened No. 1 squad. Dimas De Leon smashed into the enormous Raider wall to convert a fourth-down run, and later Bobby Garcia pitched a strike to Carlos Tamez for 21 yards. De Leon popped in from the 7 at 9:21 to make it 14-all, and now let’s see what’s up.
When PN went 3-and-out and punted poorly to its own 46, the sense was that though the Raiders had been excellent, efficient, and massive so far, this dam might be ready to break.
A couple of pass completions out wide looked slick, as Vela now abandoned to an extent the between-the-tackles approach and began to spread the D, use the field and its wheels. But the drive stalled just outside the Red Zone amid a series of futile smashes into the line. Eight times Thursday the Sabes gained zero yards or worse on running attempts.
Graced with that let-off, Kaufmann’s club – which had perhaps started to leak just a little unease – got back on the good foot, taking off on a journey of 18 plays, covering 75 yards and culminating with a TD at 8:32 of the fourth. Right there, another Key Juncture, as after tying the ball game, Vela missed its chance to grab the lead, whereupon the Raiders commenced to leaning, pushing, sweating their way to the advantage once again.
For the night, Vela was to gain just 198 total yards, well below its average output, and could not move the football on the next possession. They punted away and sent a weary defense back onto the field once again. Though seven different defenders ended up with at least eight tackles Thursday, that was partly down to the vast difference in number of snaps, between the teams. Pharr North. Just. Kept. The. Ball.
CHAMPS WON’T QUIT
After capping an 8-play, 66-yard march with a 31-yard scoring jaunt through a gassed Vela D, the Black Shirts appeared to have things well in hand by 2:17 of the fourth.
But the Dynasty wasn’t done. It was not their night, to be sure, and the Raiders were quietly, consistently superb to be sure. But when Jaxson Shupe latched onto a pass and rambled 42 yards, throwing in a sweet, backyard style spin move to get extra steps in, Vela looked intent on saving the bacon. Garcia hooked with sophomore TE R.J. De Leon (who had some killer downfield pancakes) for 14, and then he found De Leon for a 4-yard swing pass TD out of the backfield. This was at 1:26, and the place was up for grabs, pandemonium.
More madness came then, as on the onside kick, the ball smacked off an up man for North and bounced back upfield, where Moreno (again!) hopped on it. One last chance, the Raiders bug-eyed with surprise and the Sabes knowing that it wasn’t done yet. Not so fast, suckah!
But to put the symbolic gloss on an evening of surprise, Vela went nowhere with its last gasp, suffering through an illegal formation flag and an intentional grounding call – plus two sacks – to surrender the ball/game with just 58 seconds left to go.
Upset special, Game of the Week over. Vela having lost.
Wow. Life. Learn. Reload. Come back hard.
Pharr North came in big and hungry, and with 13 juniors who had played a ton as sophomores, including three 2021 postseason contests. The SaberCats, conversely, have gobs of talent, as is usually the case, but they are a bit light in the seasoning category. Not as callow, now. The big games call for experience, among other things.
Now 1-1 in District 15-5A, the Blue and Black will use the bye week to character test and re-boot the program principles, the fundamentals. And this is the way it goes after a loss, by a team not accustomed to losing. Once they hit the turf at Richard R. Flores Thursday, Oct. 6, Campbell’s charges will certainly be over this shocker, and they will be ready to make tatters and rags out Rio Grande City. As the coach said, sometimes a loss can be a blessing in disguise, and one imagines that the Sabes will return to action with a real will to be excellent.