October 7, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game gallery
They say that from the end of it, almost immediately afterward, they moved on, and one no doubt believes it. And yet, the bitter taste of defeat back on Sept. 22, while not a millstone around their necks, has certainly been a catalyst of sorts for the SaberCats. The loss to Pharr North woke them up with a splash of reality, reminded them that no team-no time-nowhere wins ‘em all, and most vitally, ushered in a bye week of rewind and refresh, re-dedication, and re-focus. Making them pretty excited for Thursday.
Which is where Rio Grande City comes in.
At first there were murmurs in the stands Thursday, and slightly puzzled glances on the sideline. Vela fell behind the visiting Rattlers – never have they been styled or resembled a football dynasty, admittedly – not once but twice. A long run by a tremendous Rio back, and a RVHS fumble on special teams, and it was 14-7, underdog. A few grumbles, heads shaking, natives restless, all that. But then. Then, a bomb went off at Richard R. Flores Stadium, and again and again, and when the wreckage was sifted through, post-kill, all was well once again in the land of the Blue and Black.
Coming into the night, the Sabes had turned in decidedly pedestrian work in the passing class, with an average of 117 yards per game. A far cry from the old days, when Vela would throw for twice that, easy, often more. But Thursday was to be a re-boot in the airwaves, as Bobby Garcia was absolutely pinpoint, sophomore Myles Lopez just as accurate. In the 70-27 victory, as the home boys flirted with the school record for points (72), the ball was flying, and so were the guys. Six touchdown passes for the evening, more than 500 yards of offense, and back on track they went, rising to 2-1 in District 15-5A and 5-1 all told.
Still minus leading rusher Jamal Polley, who dressed for the affair, waited in the wings, but did not see the field (his time approaches), Vela relied on its old saw, pitching the pig, and it was fabulous. Twenty-four throws, 21 completes. The offense, with trickster Dimas De Leon dipping and darting past the 100-yard rushing mark, was scintillating, every way it tried.
Rio, 3-2 to start 2022, was going to score some, everyone figured that, because the Rattlers had averaged 30 ppg in their five contests with the ancient Slot-T and a propensity for sprinting from the huddle and up to the line to run plays in a hurry. Looks like Canadian football sometimes, and is that slot guy offside? The back? Sure looked it.
So it might take 35 to win it. Vela got almost twice that and laid to rest the few lingering doubts and regrets from a fortnight past. They didn’t belabor the point of having possibly let a district title slip away against the Raiders. But the debit made for a sure spur onward. To be Rio on Thursday was to know that the opponent was freakin’ salty. Not a promising scenario. It had to be someone, taking the compensatory beating. It was Rio.
While Rattler Victor Cardenas, surely one of the top backs of the season so far, was sublime, cutting, accelerating, making them miss, etc., that little stud couldn’t do it all by himself, no matter how nasty he is in pads. And he didn’t.
The night was then a renaissance of sorts, with Vela looking like its old self, winging it with flawless execution, parlaying its excellence on special teams, dominating the field position battle, and generally playing sharp, aggressive football, showing character development all the while.
Satisfying victory, relatively injury-free, and now the program will combat the next four nights with confidence and renewed faith, watching the scores and planning for the sort of deep playoff run that the coaches and kids, their numerous fans, have gotten used to during the past eight seasons.
How did Miller do?
BACK ON IT, EVENTUALLY
The first Vela drive was vintage, as Garcia (ridiculous, 12 of 13, 206 yards and four TDs) completed four in row, the slants open as an azure sky, and playmaker extraordinaire Justin Navarro hauled in a 7-yard scoring pass at 7:56. The march had started at the 46, as Navarro, on his way to a mammoth performance, returned a kick with his usual dance moves and escape room skills.
Problem was, Rio was already ahead, as that pinball Cardenas had broken a 52-yard burst which led to a Rattler touchdown a little more than two minutes in. At first on Thursday, the Sabes were guilty of a little ball watching on defense. Or call it back watching, and either way, Rio’s misdirection attack had befuddled the defense, a Where is it, Who is it, Who had him sort of thing. Jalisco!
Once the coaches got that glitch ironed out, it would be way smoother sailing. But first a botch on the punt return (“Peter!!!”) to set the Rattlers up near midfield, and soon the upstart led 14-7, at 3:45 of a fast-moving first period. Linebacker Julian Guevara had made a pair of tackles to force the punt, but Rio cashed in the ensuing break to shock the Sabe system once again. Hey, other teams can play football in the Valley. Fair enough.
Thus challenged, the Sabes rode another slick return from Navarro, who was to wonder aloud afterward why the foe kept kicking his way. Not sure, but they did.
At any rate, the push began at the Rio 49 after Navarro cruised past midfield, and later he was to add a 32-yard reception down to the 1, Garcia nudging in for the tie at 2:42. Navarro (10 catches for 130 yards) and receiving mate Carlos Tamez (9 for 115, yet more physiognomic comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo) was equally wonderful. Whether it was senior Garcia or young comer Lopez, the ball was in good hands Thursday, zipping to its appointed destination with unerring accuracy, behind a line that was bent on improving its performance in the Raider loss. Pancakers, 72 and 77, holla.
Came the second and it would be classic Vela, with 28 points, including a defensive touchdown, and an insurmountable 42-14 by halftime.
The first major salvo was a picture-book post pass of surpassingly prime dimensions, which strapping junior Jaxson Shupe gloved in stride, hands high, legs churning, and the 43-yard connection for six made it 21-14 just 36 seconds into the period. As the play started, offensive coordinator Jamaar Taylor exclaimed, “Jax should be open on this!” and he was right. One could almost see the Rattlers look around at each other, as in … uh oh.
Right, uh oh.
And after a three-and-out paced by twin licks by active Branden Cantu, Vela set off from its 41 to get some. Lopez, arm all doing the whip, was super with three laser beams, but again, the ball popped loose from the Sabes at the Rio 16, the second of three bobbles that went back to the redclad visitors on the night.
Rather than fret, the Sabes then got a fine play from one of the most talented newcomers of 2022, as safety Luis Garcia rose up to knock down a third-down pass, one of the few Rio tried on Thursday, and in seconds, Vela had the ball back.
The drive started at the 47, and for the game, nine of 12 Sabe possessions would commence past their own 40; again, the masters of the short field. De Leon was good for an 18-yard scamper to add fuel to a growing fire until another passing reward, from the 7 to make it 28-14 at 5:25 of the second. The receivers were open all night, like the Waffle House, and Navarro and Tamez have some of the best hands the program has ever seen.
At this stage, Rio was sputtering, the Vela ’backers making their reads, the front four starting to make their penetrations, and the Rattlers failing to find the roam room they had seen in the nascent stretches. Another three-and-out, and to paraphrase and repurpose the rhetorical flourish of Ronald Reagan in his winning debate performance against Jimmy Carter back in 1980: “There you go again …” There they went again.
The shortest of short fields now, from the Rio 34, and on the fourth snap, Garcia lofted a GPS disc that Tamez gathered in neatly as he did the ol’ one-two on the sideline and in the corner. At 3:06, 35-14, and don’t bother closing the barn door, cows done gone.
The finishing brush stroke on this second period canvas of artistic profundity came courtesy of a defensive score, when LB Robert Cantu mucked up a Rio handoff, inducing a fumble. DL Christian Rios was off to the races with the loose goose, and 44 yards of not unimpressive track work later, Vela was comfortably in front, 42-14, Rio not so comfortably numb after the Sabes – needing a big response after its loss – had blasted the Rattlers to the dark side of the moon. Money!
Odd feeling at a game like this, knowing that the result was in the bag with half the muster still to come. But the Sabes were going to use the remaining time to work on their game, refurbish their confidence, and have some fun besides. The 2’s love a blowout.
It was Navarro, total Man of the Match for the way he exemplified the team spirit of rebirth, who kept rolling after the break. On the first drive of the third he came back to the ball after having entered the end zone, scooting over far left to scoop the pass up near the turf and shame a Rio defender who must have thought, no way he gets it. He got it, 49-14 at 10:24. Navarro tallied thrice Thursday.
Then the defense again, as A.J. Reyes had a good series from DB, the Sabes getting touched for decent yardage as Rio got to the home 27 before expiring. Then came an 11-play journey, Navarro taking a turn in the Wildcat as he would do several times Thursday, and junior Cyrus Golat ripping off a 17-yard run.
Tamez then scored with a 16-yard strike, although sophomore tight end R.J. De Leon will assuredly claim partial credit. After Tamez appeared to lose the handle right at the goal line, De Leon barged in to fall on it, and the referees never really did say much in a demonstrative fashion to clear up the mystery. Either way, TD and 56-14 lead.
One has to admire No. 1 from Rio, because he is legit. Cardenas almost tripped himself up on the kick return following the Tamez/De Leon production, making such a quick move that he seemed to be about ready to hit turf. He did not, and after two dirty cuts past Vela defenders, he was off down the left side, racing all the way for a length-of-field score, and even the Sabe Nation had to applaud. All-Valley, that tiny, terrible missile.
The measure of what was left included a third fumble by Vela (down spot, among few) a touchdown by Rio as the result; a sweet 32-yard D. De Leon six-pointer (he got the city moves); a flying interception by future star Garcia on D, and a pounding pop from R. De Leon, who was mighty happy to have earned his first (second?) prize of the night.
Snakes ran out the clock for six minutes, which was fine, although the stat freaks in attendance noted that the Vela record for single-game scoring had been well in reach.
Stats and scores aside, this was the upbeat performance the Sabes had to have. They know that they didn’t really come up with the goods over at Pharr North, but they also understand that in the grand scheme of things, as Coach John Campbell has said on more than one occasion, sometimes a football team needs to lose, to realize that nothing is written in stone on the slopes of Football Olympus.
The coach noted that he is watching his team, basically a new one, based on tree rings, to see how it will respond, week by week. How it will take the legacy of excellence and use it to the best possible value. No doubt that the Blue and Black was knocked off center by the Raiders, and no doubt also, that they are determined to make that into a learning experience, using it as a ramp from which to jump, take flight, and soar once again.
Navarro turned in the signature play of the night, in the second half, when he took the ball down the left sideline and when a tackler confronted him with bad intentions, he, Navarro, planted, used his hip and hand to Heisman off the defender and vault high into the air like an antelope on the banks of the Euphrates, landing on his feet, as superb athletes will do.
Metaphor: Vela flying once more.