October 27, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
At this stage of the season, it’s all about momentum and belief, consistency and heart. Teams may still put in a new play call or two, a tweak here and there, but the tactical hay is in the barn for the most part. Position switches have long since been made if the need had arisen, and now your club is trying to stay healthy, conserve energy, and wait for the playoffs.
Yeah right. Not the Sabes.
In the weeks following the surprise loss to Pharr North, Vela has come back to its groove of excellence, smashing through four opponents successively by an aggregate score of 253-48. Now 5-1 in District 15-5A, 8-1 overall, the Blue and Black are not even coasting; even though the postseason picture is pretty clear, Coach John Campbell had made it equally perspicuous to his kids where they stand, Big Picture.
After the Sabes humbled Palmview, 55-14 Thursday night at home, the coach spilled his latest beans. When asked by a media type about the team approach these days, whether Vela is taking it light in preps for the Second Season, Campbell – as he will do – offered a countercultural response.
“You always like to have a balance there,” he said, suggesting that peaking too early can be fatal, too late, same. “We tell them that they’re already in the playoffs basically, right now, in that each of the games we have had lately, we expect that sort of intensity you get in the playoffs. Palmview is a playoff caliber team and so is Nikki Rowe; we have them next. So while you want to keep kids healthy, work on depth by getting a lot of bodies out there, we are also trying to keep the hot streak going.”
In the afters of the Palmview win, when Vela roared to 24 first quarter points and rushed for more than 200 yards for the seventh time in nine games, Campbell noted that some of his key players are definitely in Playoff Mode as November nears. He began by praising the exploits of senior quarterback Bobby Garcia, who was almost perfect Thursday with a 15-of-16 showing good for 271 yards, a career high.
“He’s just on fire,” Campbell mused. “Bobby has been improving all year. And since the Mac High game he has really been consistent, his decision-making has been excellent. After Mac High we said, ‘OK, that’s a great game for him.’ But he’s now doing it every week, he is just playing exceptionally well at quarterback for us.”
After going 12 for 13 against the Bulldogs, the baseball star was eight of nine against Rio, and that was just setting the table. Because against a solid Lobo team Thursday, he was actually 16 for 16, the only debit being a second half interception. No ball hit the ground off his arm, and two touchdowns to Justin Navarro in the first period certainly did not. Talk about on target. Bobby was flat ruling the rock, bro.
As for Navarro, the senior sparkplug, the past few games have seen him truly emerge, making big plays and pushing the offense to greater heights. After a relatively low key first part of the schedule, No. 7 is on a binge. He’s averaged 11.5 yards on rushing attempts, either from the Wildcat or on the end around, with four scores. As a receiver, he’s going for 16.1 yards a catch and has now hauled in 10 TDs, nine in the past four bouts. Not to mention his murderous potential as a return man, which is well chronicled. You just think you’re gonna tackle him.
Against Palmview, Navarro even took a turn at his old safety spot and came up with an interception, one of three the Sabes grabbed as the Lobos (now 3-3, 6-3) tossed it around in a desperate but doomed attempt to come from behind. A running team all the way, Palmview did Thursday what every such ground-based crew does not want to do: get behind big early, and be forced to try and throw it. Didn’t work.
And in the backfield, there was Jamal Polley. Put it this way, it’s probably way more fun to watch the talented senior shred defenses than it is to be part of those defenses. Thursday, Polley surpassed the 100-yard mark for the fifth time in 2022, finding the end zone three times in 14 carries. In the second half he turned in a handful of absolutely riveting runs, with dynamic cuts, flawless vision, and outstanding speed. Polley is a rare back in that he can make a slick slice one step into the run, right after the handoff. On his second and third steps, he is also adept at re-cutting, and sometimes he looks like he’s on the Advanced ski slopes, leaving tacklers empty-handed by executing deft dips and slaloms in extreme traffic.
“He’s definitely 100 percent out there right now,” Campbell noted, and indeed, after some midseason injury woes, the sterling senior is enjoying a total renaissance. “Jamal is back and better than ever, and he’s running behind a line that has grown up a lot in the past few weeks. With Bobby playing the way he is, our receivers making plays, and Jamal running like he’s running, it makes our offense difficult to stop.”
On a somber evening, when the news of the passing of legendary Edinburg High coach Richard R. Flores started to become community knowledge, Vela went to work against a credible foe, and gave the crowd a terrific watch. In the 1980s, Flores led the Bobcats to 88 wins, three third-round playoff trips, and an upstate reputation for quality all around. Now, the Sabes have carved out their own decade of brilliance, with first Michael Salinas and now Campbell doing what Flores used to do regularly with the Red and Blue: win, win, win.
Palmview was an interesting opponent for Game Nine, a program that has had its occasional shining lights, including five playoff appearances since 2014. The Lobos once boasted one of the all-time stars of Valley football, the illustrious Javi Femat – styled in those days as the modern-day version of the Spanish warrior hero of the 12th century, El Cid – who devastated all comers back in 2010 with his dual-threat ability that produced 46 total touchdowns. People still talk about the P-SJ-A Memorial track meet, when the speedy, strong, and agile Femat scored 36 points on his own in a 65-58 victory that set a record for most combined points in a regular season contest between Valley schools. Femat was Truth.
There is no Cid on this year’s Lobo roster, but Coach Mage Requenez’ group has been tough in 2022, and was hoping to ride the mojo of consecutive, if narrow, wins over Rio Grande City and McAllen. No such luck.
On the very first play from scrimmage, Garcia lofted one down the right sideline, where Carlos Tamez made a spectacular catch for a 33-yard gain. CT2! Three snaps later, Vela was ahead 7-0, courtesy of a short burst from Polley. It had taken 49 seconds, and Palmview was where it had not wanted to be, behind. On the ropes.
While Campbell lauded his offensive stalwarts, he is equally pleased with matters on the other side of the football. For the season, the Sabes have now scored 496 points, and their average per game is the highest in school history, at 55 ppg. Defensively, after allowing 28 points to Pharr North and 27 to Rio, the crew has clamped down to surrender just 21 the past three outings. And on the first series Thursday, rugged linebacker Julian Guevara, on his way to a superb night (10 tackles, a pair of interceptions) registered loud and clear with two pops on Lobo ballcarriers. Right end Alexzander Sotelo, with his mega-motor and chase speed, forced the punt with a sharp tackle, and Vela set off again.
Garcia to Navarro was the key play on a drive that produced a 44-yard field goal from kicker Eduardo Valdez, and it was 10-0 at 6:58. When the Lobos got the ball back, it was not happy, as senior Jake Dufner took another star turn with a rough bear-hug of a tackle and a quicksilver rush on the passer. As the game developed, the Lobos were marooned near the south end zone at Flores Stadium, the Sabes raging downhill at them and threatening to turn what many had imagined would be a competitive evening into a done deal.
So as it is written, so let it be done:
Starting at midfield, the Blue and Black quickly tallied again for a 17-0 advantage at 3:23 when Garcia located a streaking Navarro down the middle on a 26-yard connection. In the first half it was a passing party, Garcia tossing for 225 yards on 12 for 12. The Sabes would reverse the gears after the break, unleashing Polley and gaining almost all their 206 Thursday rushing yards in the final two periods. Pick your poison, Palmview.
For third time, Palmview had trouble moving the ball, as Guevara and the other linebackers – Demetro Sanchez was active in the first half – were quick to the ball, as was rangy sophomore DB Derek Rodriguez. The Lobos started to make some headway with a first down but ran ground after a sack by Christian Rios of Vela, with assist from Branden Cantu. After the punt, it was Garcia to Navarro again, this time for 54 yards, and an insurmountable lead of 24-0 with 11 seconds left in the first.
Still Palmview breathed, and now the Lobos ground out a 75-yard touchdown drive, springing the Slot T trap against over-pursuing Sabes and winding downfield to a 3-yard run into the end zone at 5:28. Vela then committed a turnover near the enemy Red Zone, and on came the visitor from La Joya.
Wait-a-minute … w-w-wait-a-minute?
Requenez’ club reached into Vela territory with a series of passes, oddly, and was at the Sabe 25 late, looking to cut into the margin. That’s when Navarro turned back the clock with a center field grab of a Lobo aerial, racing 60 yards back upfield as the half ended.
Or so we thought. The rules state that a half or game cannot end on a defensive penalty, if the offensive team should so choose to continue. For an infraction during Navarro’s runback, the Lobos were penalized 15 yards, setting the ball at the 29 for the seldom seen “untimed play.” It, the play, ended up being a field goal from 46 yards out, on which the timing was poor but Valdez was nonetheless able to cram the kick in, barely, to make it 27-7 at the half.
WHERE DID HE COME FROM?
Easy Street it seemed, and Easy Street it would eventually be, though Palmview now sent on a veritable giant to return the second half kickoff. Stephen Zeledon is one of the biggest kids one will see toting the pigskin around here, and he apparently also has some wheels, because he took the kick and rumbled 88 yards for six, several Vela players falling off the pace or falling in the wake of contact with big No. 18, who is six foot and then some and least 215 pounds of muscle. Why this was the only time he saw the ball Thursday is a question for the mystics in the misty mountains, but on his moment, he was sublime.
Jolted out of their reverie by this stirring return score, the Sabes were able to regroup, with Garcia running well and Polley jutting and jetting, juking and jamming, until Dimas de Leon slid in from the 4 at 10:10. Answering fast, a Vela tradition. The answer continued with an INT by the alert Guevara, who was simply masterful Thursday, hitting Lobos with malicious intent and ranging the field looking for impact. He always seems just a tad peeved out there, ready to riot, which defensive coaches tend to like, on balance.
Now it was riot and rout, Polley scooting in from the 15 to make it 41-14 at 8:08 of the third and Guevara leading the next defensive series, with significant help from sophomore tackle Daniel Duberney. The latter Sabe was all over the place after intermission, making six tackles, while slim but salty linebacker Robert Cantu was also steadily applying a hat to the enemy, to the tune of 10 tackles. Cantu has the speed to get there and makes up for lack of bulk with a will to come hit anyway, despite a size debit. Keep an eye on 56 (Duberney) and 30 (Cantu), among others, as Vela depth for the stretch runs continues to crystalize.
Late in the quarter the home side rang up a 48-14 lead as first Navarro, and then Polley and Garcia, nudged the chains onward with healthy gains, until Garcia spun in (literally) from the 1 at 4:20 …
Those two we talked about, Duberney and Cantu, then marshaled another stop with their mates, but the Sabes suffered an INT, as the period subsided. Palmview worked down to another chance, but that was snuffed out by Guevara’s second pick, a penalty on the turnover return leaving Vela just 11 yards from paydirt; Polley popped in for the final count of 55-14 and now one game left before the postseason begins.