October 13, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
At first it seemed interminable, this first season of yet another UIL realignment, as everyone waded through the non-district schedule for more than a month. And yet now, the second half of the slate is flying past, gaining speed and showing its augur’s omens to those who would know.
For North, the portents are potent as well as promising these days, especially after a dominant performance at home Thursday against a suddenly suspect Mission Eagle ball club. Rolling to a 31-3 victory, the Cougars played well for the third time running, rising to 5-2 overall for 2022, 2-0 in District 31-6A. They are adding momentum with every week and will seek to put the mojo to proper use in the coming moons. Coach Damian Gonzalez’ sturdy band of brothers travel to the Tri Cities next week for an enormous bout with the P-SJ-A Bears, to be followed by the Oct. 28 Clash of Titans against EHS, and by the November clincher against another rival, Econ.
Based on the signs from Thursday, the Old Gold is within range of an historic season.
The five triumphs so far means that North needs a single victory in its last three to record the program’s first winning season since the salad days of 2012-13. The Coogs went 5-5 in 2021, roaring to three straight successes at the end of the season but coming up just shy of a playoff trip. They also took five W’s in 2014 and 2017. The latest campaign has seen some early downs but more than enough recent ups to lift program spirits to a level not enjoyed for some time.
Before the year began, on the other hand, Mission was touted as a contender, and reasonably so on the basis of a 28-12 record the past four seasons and consistently solid, hard-nosed performances during that successful span. But versus North Thursday, the Eagles were knocked off center early, never recovered, and saw the Coogs send them to 0-2 in district, a distressing 1-6 in all competitions.
Particularly nasty was the North defense guided by the veteran coordinator Lonnie Garza, which limited the Eagles to 104 total yards on a night of nada for the visitor. On 13 separate occasions, the Coogs stopped Mission in its running tracks, for zero yards or less. Everywhere they looked, Birds saw Cougars, and the Eagles never did figure out a way to stem the tide of onrushing bruisers. Sometimes from up front, sometimes from the second level or beyond, North sent its waves swiftly forward, winning the battle at the line of scrimmage and out-quicking the Mission blocking tries on the edge.
Total domination, from crushing linebacker Sam Cerda to the secondary Twin Terrors, Orlando and Eduardo Gonzalez. A great performance from an agile and irascible defensive line, and there just wasn’t any room to run.
Meanwhile, senior QB Oscar Campos piloted the club’s offensive attack, completing 10 of 17 passes and having the pleasure of handing off to a breakout back in progress; junior Uli Melendez was just outright rampant Thursday, breaking through gaping holes in the middle of the Mission D for four touchdowns and 176 yards rushing. A tallish, upright strider with good leg strength, solid wheels, and obvious north-south tendencies, Melendez continues to charge ahead into a prominent role for the offense, the type of back one has to watch: a ticking time bomb who could go off, all the way, at any time.
Gonzalez, in his fifth season at the helm of his alma mater, was all smiles after the performance, which is understandable; everywhere he looked Thursday, he saw a team clicking on its cylinders, mashing through resistance, and making plays to subdue the opponent, snap after snap.
“We played with great intensity tonight,” he said, in the postgame chats. “We’re getting better every week, and that includes special teams, in that area we have really improved the past couple of weeks. Overall, we’re getting going at the right time.”
When asked about the fact that his ball club may have been flying a bit quietly in recent weeks, per attention from the RGV crowd, the coach was not unhappy.
“Hey, we prefer to be under the radar sometimes, that’s fine with us,” he advised. “That doesn’t affect us, because we’re just working hard each week, to get what we want. We want the playoffs, and the next step would be a district title. The ultimate aim is a long playoff run.”
NO WAITING AROUND
Though there would not be an overflow crowd at Richard R. Flores Stadium Thursday, the Coogs were sharp from the get-go, and that includes the pregame. Kids were on the jog, snappy with their warmups, sending an early message that they were set to scrap. The offense went through its paces, the improving Campos delivering ball after ball to his receivers, their gloved mitts grabbing seemingly every one of them. North was so true in the run-up that even the ball boys were stringing together catch after catch.
The precision continued into the night’s work, as on the opening kickoff, Mission botched the return and Federico Cappadona nearly recorded a safety by slamming into the Eagle return man at the cusp of the end zone. Luckily for Mission, the play was called a touchback after the runner had seen the kick go through him at the 5, and into the end zone. Though he then tried to come out and was blasted by the missile Cappadona, landing at the 1, the Eagles got a reprieve to the 25. But that was the way it would go for them all night.
On that first series, Cerda of North was up to his brutal business, making two stops to force the first of many, many (eight) punts for the beleaguered visitor. Big and strong, a guy who relishes contact and generally makes much of it, Cerda can really motor for a 225-pounder. He stands the sentinel in the middle of the North D, and appears to be everywhere, such is his deceptive foot speed.
In hindsight, this might have been the key juncture on a one-sided evening, as the Coogs then took the ball and scored, needing all of four plays to do it. Melendez was the man, literally and figuratively, as he took the handoff four times successively, accounting for all 52 yards and ending the punch-up with a 5-yard pop at 7:38 of the first. Gonzalez and Co. have been increasing the junior’s workload with each week, and he notes that the promising back’s mindset is developing apace.
“We want him to get his touches, because he is such an explosive back, we are unleashing him now,” Gonzalez said. “And we want him to get used to carrying it a lot, to learn that he’s not tired. We say, ‘Stay in there and keep going.’”
Melendez would get his chance to keep going but first the Coogs would have to contend with the Mission O again. The Eagles cranked out a couple of first downs after the kick before Cerda again was the focal point, smashing a Mission runner and later defending a pass out on the flank. 33, 33, and 33.
Up 7-0 and about to get the pig back, North did a wise thing, and put Keyshawn Garcia back to receive once again. And Garcia, maybe the most impressive physical specimen on the field Thursday, did his thing, careening back to the Mission 36 on the first of a handful of excellent returns he turned in. If you don’t get that cat early, keep him from accelerating and using his ample strength, you are in trouble. Consejo: kick away from him.
In five plays, it was 14-0, Melendez banging through the middle for a 25-yard touchdown at 2:04. Campos had kept the drive fresh with a third-down completion to one of the many youngsters on the roster this season, Osman Alanis. The speedy freshman went near the 100-yard mark against Mission, and like Garcia is a standout in track for the school.
This was it for Mission, the Eagles had to start throwing blows or this one would be TKO, plain and simple. They did get some ground under them now, advancing to two first downs before the walls caved in. First, Fabian Gonzalez and Yazmani Rodriguez combined for a sack of the passer, followed by a tackle-for-loss by a rising presence, junior tackle Sebastian Salamanca (too quick to block). The capper of this telling portion of the night came when senior Andrew Renner banged in to force a fumble which was located by junior teammate Eliezer Cardenas at the Eagle 28, as the second period began. On that series, the North defense was absolute iron.
There are youthful playmakers all over the field now, to go with the proven veterans, and to take advantage of the turnover, North turned to one of the former. Jose Ramirez may be a sophomore, but he is confident and talented. He took a short flip from Campos and danced his way for a 17-yard pickup through traffic, reaching the Mission 11. Dude high-stepping? Yep, makin’ ‘em miss. Another Campos connection to Alanis got the Coogs close, but the drive bogged down inside the 5, leading to a field goal from lefty kicker Ramiro Vargas, who has had a fine season so far in 2022.
They got three and not seven, but the Coogs did not worry about it; they just set back into the work, getting a pair of crunching hits from safety Garcia to elicit another punt. The blitzkrieg continued as Campos to Alanis was good for 23 yards, followed by a sprint up the middle by that chap, Melendez, covering 35 yards and amassing a 24-0 lead midway on toward the half. Two plays, all it took.
Thursday marked the return of Leo Reyes to public address chores at the Stadium, and that smooth professional – sorely missed last week due to an illness – was back in the groove now, calling out the names of the offensive linemen that had so far given Melendez wide swaths of open green to romp through. Four senior starters and a few up-and-coming trench men, with center Victor Avila (junior) right in the middle of it. In the past, North has generally been successful when it’s had the big, hard lines, and in 2022, the crew is living up to its considerable potential.
Late in the half, Cerda came calling to erase an enemy ball-carrier with a resounding lick. He reminds one of former North all-star David Torres, with his package of bulk, anticipation, motor, and ferocity.
The Coogs wanted to pad their lead now, and a 34-yard Alanis catch and run – he made a first down out of a 2nd-and-32 snap, and when you do that, well, you gon’ win – made it look probable. But North could not finish an almost perfect half, stalling down deep and then seeing a field goal try go just wide (just indeed, heck, everyone thought it was good for at least 10-15 seconds afterward, but oh well).
Halftime, North on a high, Mission dragging itself wearily into the lockers. Done.
DETAILS AND FUTURE
Melendez provided what would be the only six of the second half, with a 43-yard cruise just 42 seconds after the kickoff. Avila jogged off the field with a big grin on his face, after Melendez had helped himself to the free range that Avila and mates had carved out of a sagging Eagle front. And as is often the case when a mismatch develops, the clock seemed to be running double-time as the game wore on. So be it.
North would not be headed, although it did lose the shutout with less than three minutes to go, Mission creeping close against the 2’s to knock in a field goal for the final 31-3 count.
During that second half, Eduardo Gonzalez was on the sideline, having sustained a shoulder injury that did not seem prohibitive. And that is a good thing, because the safety, a former linebacker, has found a real rhythm lately on the football field. Like Garcia, he is a fantastic athlete, the type of kid who just looks good in a uniform, and then plays like it. Not one to sit quietly, the loud, funny character No. 21 was up on his feet during the half, exhorting his brother and the rest to keep it going.
His brother Orly, a classy shutdown corner whose leadership and poise have been paramount in the team’s success this year – for years, really – was less than 10 yards away, eying his receiver, close to sidelined Eduardo as one play started.
“Hey shutdown corner here, that’s their leading receiver, and he’s got nothing!” Gonzalez hollered, to nods of agreement and laughter from the sideline Coogs. Quick of mind as well as feet, Gonzalez kept quipping.
“See, 5 against 5, our 5 is killin’ him,” he laughed, and true, Orly Gonzalez wears No. 5 and he was working against a Mission wideout with the same jersey number. Those brothers are something else, terrific football players and terrific kids, and after the win was recorded, they took a minute to make the talk.
Both agreed that next week, against the Bears, is going to be a great football game, an opportunity for the Coogs to take another huge step along the road to a possible championship. They have made 10 playoff trips since 2007 but have not hoisted the title trophy in 21 years. Does destiny await?
“If we play like we can, our best, I think we can win it,” 21 stressed, as 5 looked at him, smiling.
“Gonna be tough, but we are definitely gonna show up,” said 5. That phrase, for the uninitiated, means that North is coming to the fight, not just to show up, but to show out, and glow up.
The brothers concurred that Thursday was also about some paybacks, after Mission had defeated North in a narrow-run thing last year, 28-24. They also know that with each passing week, and win, they’re moving into position to achieve a real milestone. Those kids are having fun. And it is infectious.
Their coach appreciates what the Twins bring to the table, calling them fine leaders.
“You know Eduardo will come and hit you, he loves to pop ya,” D. Gonzalez said. “And with Orly, well, you know you have a shutdown guy there, he is also a leader by the things he does. Leads by example.”
Some coaches would be pleased with possessing two such DBs, but Gonzalez is doubly dazzled, because he’s also got a game-changing corner in Cappadona and a circuit-breaker at safety in Keyshawn G. Name a better secondary in the Valley. Can’t.
“Keyshawn just wants to go in there and make big plays, that’s his goal on every snap,” the coach said. “And you know what, week after week, that’s what he is doing, making plays to help us win games.”
Now, a win over Mission was not unexpected in a sense, because the Eagles have struggled mightily from the start of ‘22. But for North, the victory Thursday was not necessarily about the opponent; more about the Coogs themselves. And others. They can look at the papers (smartphones) and see that EHS beat the Eagles handily, 48-29, a week ago. And they can make comparisons.
They can see that P-SJ-A, after a rocky 0-3 start against high quality comp, has gotten its offense revving to rave reviews during a stretch of high-flying performances. The Bears are 2-0, 3-4 and have knocked off Econ and La Joya in district so far; among their losses are debits to Los Fresnos, Pharr North, and Brownsville Vets, top tier teams.
At home, with their rabid crowd going bananas, the Bears will be standing in to go the distance, as will the Cougars. Both squads feel that this is their year, their time to shine, making Thursday a must-see game. Of course, then comes the O.G. Cat Stomp, as North and EHS get together Oct. 28. Some folks suggested, when the season was in its infancy, that this latter clash might just have a bearing on the race to the roses, and as things come shaking out, that prediction still carries plenty of punch.
But first things first, meaning North against the Bears. Clash of styles, as P-SJ-A will keep the ball in the air all night. Got to get a rush, run and cover, tackle securely. The die may eventually be cast, though, with balance the determining factor. Should the Coogs continue to pitch and catch as well as they have the past few weeks – and continue to spring the strapping Melendez free for his running exercises – they should be able to match offensive totals with a fecund Bear contingent. Will it be a game in the 30s, or 40s, a shootout?
Will Keyshawn break another kick, make a pick, or come flying up to obliterate another runner? Maybe all of these. Will the defensive group, led by Cerda at LB and backed by the truly exceptional secondary group, make the final difference? Hey, it might come down to special teams, with the accurate Vargas on kicks, the positional magic of Mark Hernandez on punts … or that fellow Keyshawn again …
Some people have complained about the six-team district, the long wait for league play to begin, and even about the supposed lesser quality of the Upper Valley 6A loop, as compared to an admittedly dirty group of dogs down in the Lower Valley, i.e., Harlingen and San Benito, plus Los Fresnos and Weslaco. But there are no complaints in front of us today, only the prospect of back-to-back barnburners between evenly matched schools.
District on the line the next two weeks, the promise of glories to be had, North and the Bobcats right in the fray, thinking that this is the year, this is the chance, and that it’s time to make it happen.
Fortnight of fortuitous football fun, forthcoming.