October 20, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
PHARR – It’s not an argument that takes place every day, but now and again, someone will bring it up. You don’t think about them until you need them, and they seldom make the headlines. No doubt, the place-kicker is an obscure bird.
So who was the best kicker in the history of the Valley? Is it Sergio Castillo, who made a RGV record 58-yard field goal for La Joya back in 2007 (against mighty Converse Judson in the regional quarters)? He made some points for the New York Jets a few years back, remember that?
In the 1970s, Rio Grande City boasted about David Sanchez, who booted through 23 career field goals, with a long of 53 against Hebbronville in 1976. Closer to home, there was Richard Salaiz, who also connected on 23 three-pointers for the Bobcats, from 1975-77; one can still see him walking around town, earnestly exercising. The long-time Edinburg postmaster, Salaiz also smacked a home run (with his bat, not cleat) in the old Astrodome during a high school all-star baseball game.
More recently, the standout was the beloved Kristov Martinez of EHS, who was an amazing footballer, and also great at futbol de norteamericano. He went on to become the all-time leading scorer in Division II football, at Texas A&M-Commerce (the former East Texas State) with 446 points. The pride of the Bobcats was a four-time college All-American who made 75 career field goals and was perfect on 103 straight extra points during one scorching stretch. An Academic All-American to boot, Martinez has to be right up there when it comes to the Valley’s best. There are others, too numerous to mention.
And now … Ramiro Vargas!!!!!!
On a night when North advanced inside the P-SJ-A Red Zone six times but failed to convert any of the forays into six points, the left-footed junior saved the day – and a possible district championship – by launching into the record books with a bang. He clipped in six of seven field goal tries here Thursday to lift the Cougars to a clutch 18-8 victory over the Bears, driving the club to 3-0 in 31-6A with an unerring display of calm and composure.
In doing so, Vargas, just three for four in FG’s on the season coming in to the tilt, entered the record books in style. According to available archives, Dominic Gutierrez once recorded nine field goals for a New Mexico high school, back in 1990. An Illinois high school kicker knocked in eight in 2018 and two guys – from New York and Arizona – had seven in a game. There was also the ancient case of Milton Davis, a kicker out in Livingston in East Texas, who made eight field goals against Woodville in 1923 … all drop-kicks!
Three more kickers, including one from Dumas up in the nether region of the Panhandle, nailed six threes in a single night. Make that four more, as North’s Vargas was true on chips of 26, 38, and 35 in the first half and then continued to crank after the intermission, blasting blasts of 28, 23, and 36. In doing, so Vargas earned the rare feat of accounting for all his team’s scoring, this in a game the Coogs had to have to stay in contention for the crown. Talk about money!
They face EHS Friday with gobs of doubloons on the line, the Bobcats sitting 3-0 also and gunning for similar spoils. As the Coogs prepare for the Big Game to come, they know that if it comes down to the last ticks of the contest, if they can give the limber lefty a chance, he will probably come through, after setting what is believed to be an RGV record for field goals in a single outing. All research tentative and ongoing.
It was supposed to a classic matchup of styles, with the hard-running North offense against the passing circus of the Bears. And that is how it developed, sort of. P-SJ-A junior Jaime Lopez, leading the Valley in passing in 2022, was badly hampered by an injury and was not his usual self, completing just 16 of 43 passes for 173 yards (59 on one play) and tossing three costly interceptions, two by the electric Federico Cappadona of North. He is generally a threat to run the ball but was grounded in that respect Thursday, making it somewhat easier for an intense Coog D that didn’t need the help, but thanks.
Meanwhile, the Old Gold rushed for more than 200 yards for the third time in eight games, led by explosive junior Uli Melendez, who rambled for 173 yards before leaving the game with a leg injury. The line was working against a P-SJ-A defense that hadn’t been exceptionally noteworthy to date but ended up being hard to break down.
North quasi-dominated the line of scrimmage for 274 total yards but suffered countless penalties and miscues once it traveled inside the Bear 20; had it not been for the uncanny Vargas, having the Game of His Life, things might have ended differently. It was just 9-8, Coogs, after the Tri-Cities gang tallied a scoring pass inside the final minute of the first half, but as Coach Damian Gonzalez’ offense drove to a trio of Vargas field goals after the break, an injury-riddled defensive crew did the job, limiting P-SJ-A to just 38 yards and two first downs after the break.
Linebacker Sam Cerda, who clinched the victory with a late pick of Lopez, was the long snapper for the three-point parade Thursday, with receiver Jaycen Rosales the holder. Cerda wears jersey number 33, Rosales 3. And Vargas, the direct beneficiary of the perfect connections between 33 and 3, sports No. 30. Believe in Numerology? Either way, the ultimate beneficiaries of the latest rendition of the classic Schoolhouse Rock ditty “Three is a Magic Number,” were the Coogs, who won for the fourth time running and are now in position for the school’s first league title since the days of Coach Mario Lopez in 2001. They’ve got a slight leg up, so to say, on the Bobcats, who finish with P-SJ-A, while North ends the regular season with a bout against Econ. In its last 10 games dating back to last October, Gonzalez’ gang is 7-3.
The ‘Cats will be waiting: the City Game of the Year is thus teed up and ready to pop.
The start of the night was odd, both bands located so high in the eaves of the stadium that it was hard to hear them; were they playing the same fight song? Oh yes, right, Notre Dame and all. From the Did You Know file: the principal at P-SJ-A is none other than Rowdy Vela, of the illustrious Vela clan in Edinburg. Outstanding professional!
It was a terrific scene all around, cool and sunny, and by the time two helmets, representing Bears and Coogs, collided and exploded in loud and obnoxious pyrotechnics on the giant jumbotron, the stage was set. P-SJ-A’s stadium now rivals Weslaco’s Bobby Lackey Stadium as a Valley centerpiece, though some traditionalists will grouse about the seemingly endless number of advertisements that shriek and bellow at the audience, sometimes at the worst possible time. Twice on Thursday some local business or another was berating the crowd with an ill-timed bit of self-promotion during a play. Sigh. The yin and yang of the modern, technological, Capitalist society. To wit, the ubiquitous DHR has now stretched its dynastic tentacles into the world of high school football. And on we go.
Gonzalez was all about ball control heading into the key clash, and his plans were for North to keep the football away from the dangerous Lopez and his band of tightly wound receivers. Coach Lupe Rodriguez of the Bears – whom we recall as the first Valley QB to surpass the 4,000-yard mark, back in 1987, when he also threw a ridiculous 50 touchdown passes for Sonny Detmer’s Mission Eagles – wanted his P-SJ-A group to do what it does, pitch and catch and try and outscore the opposition.
THE ACTION COMMENCES
Giving portents of what was to come, North rang up the first blow, as tackle Sebastian Salamanca continued his rush to recent prominence with a sack on the first possession, causing a 16-yard loss and a Bear punt. Opposing teams still haven’t internalized the communique on special teams, as the Maroon kicked away, right to the sensational Keyshawn Garcia, who sprinted all the way back to the enemy 25 with the return. North reached the 12 before stalling out and on came Vargas, who popped in a 26-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead at 7:47 of the first. Garcia then ran down to make the tackle on the ensuing kickoff and has anyone enjoyed a more impactful season so far than No. 19 in Blue and Gold? He was to defend five passes, grab a fumble, run back kicks with a flash, and nearly glove a Pick Six, in the second half. What a horse he is.
The second Bear possession died with a turnover as Cappadona leapt high to snare a bomb into double coverage from Lopez at 6:30, but the Coogs gave it right back with an interception of their own, on a night when the passing game had its peaks and valleys. P-SJ-A got out to midfield now until a murderous Coog defense (produced 11 legit pass rushes Thursday, defensed 11 passes) stemmed the tide, linebacker Cerda ranging wide to thwart a throw. He can really move laterally, that Big Cat.
North signal-caller Oscar Campos came to the dance in the late first, with a 14-yard pass to Rosales, which came after Melendez had romped for 22 yards, and North was at the 16. The Bears rose up to stop the march, and Vargas trotted on to hit from 32 yards out, at 0:45. This was to be the pattern, three and not six.
Lopez was being harassed constantly, as on the next series ends Andrew Renner and Angel Rodriguez careened in on successive snaps to force incomplete passes. Right cornerback Salvador Soares, subbing in the wake of secondary injuries to the Gonzalez Twins, defended a third-down pass, and he was to do an admirable job Thursday, in a tough spot. Both the cuates played some but were hampered by shoulder woes. Will they be 100 percent for next week?
Campos was on target to start the second quarter, hitting massive end Richard Ruiz twice and smartly finding junior Fabian Pena out of the backfield for 12 yards. At the Bear 13, though, the offensive ship once again hit ground as a penalty forced Vargas on. This time he banged it through from 32, and North led, 9-0 at 8:18. By all rights, it could have been 21-0 now, and against a high-scoring P-SJ-A contingent – which had notched 55, 33, and 37 points so far in 2022 games – the trading of six for three might just come back to be the bugaboo for the visitor.
On cue, Lopez hoisted a 59-yard gain deep downfield, and the Bears were in business, 16 yards away. But Cappadona raced over to knock down a pass on the right sideline, and on third down, Garcia got the better of his opposite, causing an INC thanks also to a steam in on the passer by teammate Angel Rodriguez (a sophomore, 16, versus the senior, 42, of the same name). Boldly, the Osos went for it on fourth and 4 from the 10, but Lopez was disrupted into a stray toss by the rush of North senior Yazmani Rodriguez. Pressure was solid. Forcing an injured QB to throw off balance.
Turning point there, the Bears denied, and now the teams exchanged miscues, North tossing two errant balls for picks but the foe giving it back on a fumble recovery by the Coogs’ Garcia. Cerda and Soares combined to break the runner’s hold and allow Keyshawn to come up with that turnover.
However, toward the end of the half, North saw its lead trimmed to 1 as Lopez was four for five through the air, ending the stint with the 19-yard score at 0:36. The Bears bumbled the PAT but the holder took off and alertly ran for it, sneaking in for the two-point conversion, making it 9-8, North.
FITS AND STARTS, VARGAS CONSTANT
They felt they should have gotten better returns on the first half of work, and the Coogs played like it to start the third period, riding six healthy runs from Melendez, totaling 74 yards, as the offensive front started to punish the Bears with hard licks every snap. But again, North stepped on a mine, reaching the 2 before a penalty forced another FG, and this time, Vargas hooked his try at 6:24. Hey, mortal.
That blip on the screen was eased mightily when on the first play after the miss, Cappadona became an artist in residence. He again sped into the passing lane and went high to grab the Bear aerial, bounding off the field with the exuberance for which he has become known. Wanna get fired up? Cap got this.
Now Gonzalez’ machine was at the Bear 22 after the turnover, looking to put this one to sleep. Melendez galloped for 17 yards but a motion penalty and a sack ended the threat, leading to Vargas Time; he clouted one through from 28 yards at 2:52 and the count was weird at 12-8, not unlike a freshman or middle school football score.
It was starting to look like 12 would be enough, though, as North kept plowing through the line to attack the Bears. Yazmani Rod and Renner met in the backfield to force an errant throw, safety Garcia was equal to the task in the back, and when Garcia took a punt back to the Bear 22 as the third quarter waned, things were looking tasty.
Melendez was down with injury now, and on came Chris Barrera, the elusive jitterbug who has had his moments for North through the moons. He was to churn out 47 yards in relief of Melendez but on this drive, the Coogs experienced the same troubles that had kept them to nothing but kicks so far. A penalty at the wrong time (right one, ever?) produced a 23-yard plink from Vargas at 10:26 and with the way the ENHS defense was churning, the Bears were in peril.
The last P-SJ-A possessions yielded little, with the imposing Cerda all over the green. Vargas added his sixth field goal, from 36 yards out, and Cerda bear-hugged a pass for the unit’s fourth takeaway of the night, at 3:24. This gig was history, the Coogs undefeated in district and having won six games for the first since the 11-2 season of 2013.
Going forward, it remains to be seen how Melendez fares after exiting in the second half. He’s gained a whopping 709 yards now, and although the Coogs can rely on Barrera (227 yards) and veteran Mark Hernandez (312), facing EHS and its mobile, gutty D will be all the more trying if Melendez is unable to participate. The defense will definitely want to be at full strength for the Rivalry War, but sometimes that just isn’t going to happen. Both EHS and North have dealt with their share of injuries in 2022, and that is just part of the drill. EHS has been banged up at QB and other areas, so each has been parading back and forth to see the trainers.
The Coogs and ‘Cats would do well to take a lesson from North DC Lonnie Garza, who has hacked his way through a cancer diagnosis and treatment just like he used to swing away at fastballs as a star baseball player – standout at Pan Am – and then a longtime success as a coach in town. No quit in that warrior.
No quit in either of these two rivals. Should be a mad dash and spectacle next week, as old friends come together to trade blows and see who wants what. Only a sap would fail to note that after its kicker entered the statistical annals with a memorable Thursday night of field goal frolics, North feels that if the grudge match were to come down to a single boot … well, Vargas has been there and done that.