October 28. 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Technically, the clash might not have captured the prize for style points, as the teams turned the ball over five times and each amassed less than 200 yards of offense Friday night. The execution was off and on, partly down to the intensity of the Rivalry and the high-tension atmosphere.
But the 30th EHS-North battle produced a throwback football game, with all the physicality that this implies. All the spirit and guts of the past. Two contenders ready to come in and be crazy, see if they could clobber the other guy before the other guy could clobber them first. District on the line and who among us had not been waiting for Oct. 28?
The teams had split the last four matches back to 2018, North coming in with a 17-10-2 overall edge. In 2022, the Cougars had won four straight while EHS was working on its own streak of victories. It was this game, back before the season started, that some folks had pointed to as The One that would eventually decide matters of the title, and lo, it had come to pass.
After a fine clash of armor and might from both combatants, it was North who exited the winner, and now for the first time in 21 seasons, it’s in the money, as the 21-3 victory over the Bobcats Friday clinched at least a share of the District 31-6A championship. On the final Friday night of the regular season, the Coogs face 1-8 Econ, meaning Coach Damian Gonzalez’ hard-hitting bunch can tuck away the undisputed crown with one more success. One more piece, as they say.
Now 7-2 for the season, the Coogs overcame some mistakes, slowly worked over a game opponent with their size and strength, and found the magic potion on a few bang-bang plays to bring it all together for a vital W. Two defensive touchdowns, one off a fumble and the other after a blocked punt, sent the Old Gold into the winner’s circle at last, undefeated in league play.
The ‘Cats dropped to 5-4 overall, 3-1 in district, and will face off against P-SJ-A next Thursday in their finale. At times, EHS moved the ball with consistency but after a field goal on their opening drive, the Red and Blue could not matriculate close enough to manage any more points, though they did move the ball.
As neither rival managed to break the 200-yard mark on offense, and considering the total of five turnovers, the showdown was in a sense an uneven event.
However, in terms of intensity and effort, the will to come out and run, hit, and hustle, both locals were top of the heap. Fun to watch the kids giving it 101 percent, on both sides.
North grabbed the game with the lightning moments, and held the line after halftime, its defense having just a fantastic night in some stretches. Still, one felt the Bobcats were quite in the game, even after falling down 21-3. But they just could not make the most out of some promising drives during a latter half in which they outgained North by a good measure.
And when it was done, the Cougars exploded with joy, spraying water into the night sky, pounding each other for pleasure just as they had just 48-minute-pounded the Bobcats with ill intent. And the victory – the redemption – for a program that has lived and breathed process and patience the past several seasons, it all seemed complete when gigantic lineman Juan Alvarado embraced his coach, Damian Gonzalez, after the final whistle. Not only that, but the senior trenchman then lifted his burly coach into the air with a mammoth bear hug, as teammates and coaches bounced nearby, cackling and beaming from ear to ear.
North rising, its coach on cloud nine, the fans not far behind.
On a night when a group of venerable EHS coaches attended the city encounter to honor the legacy of recently departed legend Richard R. Flores, both teams left it all out there, grinding and double-timing it, slamming into slobberknockers time and again, intent on forging ahead in the league race for the roses. Flores, who tasted triumph 121 times in a fabulous career, would no doubt have grimaced at the turnovers, growled at the mistakes, and stalked up and down the sidelines with ideas brimming to the surface. But he would have been awful proud of the fire, the drive, and the energy shown by the latest editions at EHS and North.
So again, from the one standpoint that counts, it was classic Rivalry football, a few kids providing the key plays, the major spoils in the offing, everything to play for. Rivalry Games are mythmakers.
As is usually the case, the Coogs were set to dominate possession and sic their ferocious defense on the opponent, and from the beginning, one intuited that this game would be over well before 10 p.m., whatever the result. Passing not advised: heavy wind at times Friday, swirling diagonally across the field and carrying a slightly startling burst of cool air with it, from the northwest. Bring your jacket?
Such is the case when two ground-based squads get together in a stiff wind, and it was EHS that first established some movement of note.
North suffered an interception on its first chance, as the ‘Cats got two quick forces inside from end Edward Zuniga followed by the pick. The Bobcats then set off from their own 42, collecting a pair of first downs before North clamped down. When linebacker Yazmani Rodriguez came up with a stop on third down, Coach Rene Guzman sent Juan Davila on to try a 40-yard field goal, which the later converted at 5:53 of the first. A solid opening salvo from a team that had won three in a row coming in and had every bit as much desire to excel as did the Coogs.
On its second drive, North turned to the drill that has worked so well in 2022, featuring an inside run to junior running back Uli Melendez, and he delivered with a 43-yard tackle-breaking sprint up the middle, all the way down to the EHS 32. Next, facing a third-and-2 snap, the Coogs enticed the ‘Cats offside to move the chains.
But then it was Bobcat leader Jordan Ayala spraying in from right end, and DB/LB Ramon Vasquez, coming up fast to gum the works until North was up against a fourth and 17. Playing against a strong wind in the quarter, the Coogs read their cards and did not weep, senior QB Oscar Campos becoming the expert shark.
Rolling out of trouble, to his left, Campos was about to meet the EHS D before he smartly lofted a ball down the sideline. Waiting for it was outstanding freshman prospect Tyler Ruiz, who made the exceedingly difficult grab in traffic amid a roar of delight from the home side. His clutch catch of an equally clutch throw put the ball at the 10 and on the next snap Melendez, who bounded for 124 yards Friday, zoomed in for the 7-3 lead, at 0:25.
Sometimes, it happens like that. Even though North has a great kicker, the record-setting Ramiro Vargas – he of the six field goals against P-SJ-A – the wind was a factor in the decision to eschew the three and try for six.
And in such instances, heroes are made.
Campos, who has weathered his share of adversity in 2022, emerged from these tribulations determined to make a play. In the Big Game, He Did. Absolute Key Juncture of the night, but there would soon be more twists.
A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM
As the second period began, the crowd was restive, and here it might be noted that for a game of such magnitude, the Friday turnout was surprisingly modest. Trick or treat? Still, those fans who came to the park did not go through the event silently, at all. At times, a pleasant chaos, a Rivalry football chaos, the finest variety.
EHS, with sophomore J.T. Santa Maria getting baptism by fire in the Rivalry, saw the lithe youngster slither quickly for eight yards but the series would end in disaster as North careened in to knock the ball free on a subsequent carry. Fabian Gonzalez, the long and lean end, was first to the scene, scooping it up and heading the other way, scoring from 40 yards out at the 11:22 mark of the quarter. Key Juncture II, as North was now up, 14-3, and EHS had to respond or risk going under beneath the waves. Time stands still in the Rivalry, seemingly, but it moves fast, too, wham, over. Vertigo.
Guzman’s EHS gang responded very well indeed, as it now cranked out a patented march, shifty Noel Serna popping for 10 off the bat and then converting a 4th-and-2 blast into the line. In 2022, the offensive line play from both rivals has been very sound, perhaps one of the reasons they were able to reach the penultimate contest with a chance to win the title. First-class Hogs in town this season.
Early on, EHS slugged through the middle, and was unable to find much room against LB Sam Cerda (12 tackles, a mammoth night of work) and the rest. As the game matured, the ‘Cats would go to the Jet Sweep action to try and find space wide, while also sticking with the QB read and run, realizing that advancing into the A/B gaps teeth of the Old Gold stoppers was not going to be fruitful.
Near midfield, EHS was successful on another third down effort, and seemed to be rolling along toward the six it really needed. A bizarre sequence transpired in which the offense of the Bobcats scrambled, EHS lineman Ale Escobedo ended up catching a pass (caromed in the air off someone else and looming 71 was quick as a cat with the grab), flag flying for a holding penalty against EHS. Crazy snapshot there, but that’s not all: there was also a personal foul on the play, North, and when the dust settled (alright, no dust) the ‘Cats had a first down at the Coog 21.
In this 30th matchup of old foes and friends, this was a huge sliver of the night unfolding. Santa Maria, as Campos had done earlier, made his mark now with an athletic 26-yard run to the Coog 3. He was to lead the team in rushing with 65 yards, Serna adding 48 on 15 jarring totes, giving EHS 139 yards on 45 carries; that and 18 passing attempts gave the ‘Cats almost twice as many snaps as North (63 to 35). But now they had to get in!
Alas, a holding penalty set EHS back to the 13 and when Cerda and then Y. Rodriguez made sure tackles, the Originals were forced to try a field goal. It faltered wide left at 2:35 of the second, and the Red and Blue had failed to cash in on a terribly tantalizing drive.
Nonetheless, back to the rock pile went the EHS defense, as Ayala, the stocky veteran with a nose for the ball, led the charge after the missed field goal, along with aggressive DL Ryan Garza, who gave some rough licks.
Thus ended the action of the opening half, North up 14-3, EHS determined to make up for having missed out on points toward the end of the half.
ANOTHER DEFENSIVE DENT
The first scrums of the third were telltale, as enormous tackle Rolando Torres, in one of his best nights of the year, made a helmet-shaking stop against EHS. When the ‘Cats went back to punt, speedy end Andrew Renner, another of the Coogs who has made leaps and bounds in overall effectiveness as the calendar has turned, stormed in for the block, and immediately ran back toward the end zone … in search of a dream. Renner fell on the ball to win a skirmish against the EHS punter, but the pig sneaked away, only to be corralled for the touchdown by hustling tackle Sebastian Salamanca.
CANNON BALL! Literally, the student section just went molten at this point, only to be upstaged by wild dancing and ecstasy from the players and coaches down near the south end zone. Pure bananas.
Surely, the marquee guys are Cerda, the Gonzalez Twins, and Keyshawn G, but cats like Salamanca, Renner, and Torres are also in for their share of accolades in helping North to the district title, whichever version it turns out to be. At 9:50 then, North was up 21-3 after its second defensive touchdown of the night. Danger Time for the ‘Cats, as North would now be able to slow the game down, play it safe, and avoid costly boo-boos to ensure that the win – looking all the more likely now, but not a done deal – would be recorded in due fashion.
Midway through the third period, it was all hard knocks and nothing fancy as Cerda and LB mate Eliezer Cardenas clogged the middle. EHS was now against the wind and experienced punting problems to give the Coogs short fields to work with in the quarter. But thanks to the toil of the Little General, linebacker Johnathan Maldonado, and the rest of the D, North could not get much headway. Talk about hanging tough!
EHS, on its third possession, following the turnover and a punt, ran into Salamanca and Torres at the line of scrimmage, and a sack from the menacing Torres ended the series. Starting blessedly at the ‘Cat 29 after change of possession, North could not budge the Bobcat front. A holding penalty and then strong defensive technique on pass coverage from Derrick Galindo and then Nicholas Gonzalez turned the ball back to the ‘Cats. Still clawing.
This was going to be It, as EHS set sail now on a vital foray, hoping to get back into the mix. Ryen Abrego, in at QB, ripped off a few quality runs, scampering head up and ready for contact as he will undoubtedly do, throwing in a move or two, too. He battered through the defense to convert a third-and-2 snap before North found the remedy.
Smooth ENHS corner Orly Gonzalez signaled the end of the line by grabbing an interception, and again, the North kids were electric. Their energy increased by the quarter, and once they started to sense the win, that fervor only got stronger.
At this point it seemed that fatigue may have started to get the best of both Rivals, as after North’s pick, the Coogs fumbled it away, to Vasquez of the ‘Cats.
Again, Guzman’s O made an auspicious series, Santa Maria back in and churning hard from a crouching, scanning lean, only to pick a hole and go in a flash. Future looks bright for him and now he has experienced the energy and madness – the desperate nature of almost every play – in Rivalry Games.
A facemask call on North aided what would be the next to last legitimate opportunity for EHS but once near midfield, the ‘Cats died on the vine in the wake of superb secondary work from O. Gonzalez and safety Garcia.
On balance, North probably outhit the ‘Cats Friday, but not by a wide margin. The ‘Cats were straight up battling, as the ‘Cats will do.
Gonzalez the North coach was all up in it, lumbering up and down the sideline, exhorting his kids to finish, and yet the Old Gold could not hold onto the ball, giving a fumble away midway through the fourth, Vasquez again on it after the indefatigable Maldonado had thrown himself like a sledgehammer into the action to force the turnover.
Less than three minutes to go in the fourth, and EHS on the march again. For the night, the ‘Cats actually outgained North yardage-wise and had twice as many first downs. But the firecracker bits all went the way of the Coogs, including the lovely throw and catch from Campos and Ruiz; the breakout from Melendez that had set up that fourth down miracle; and the two defensive A-Bombs. Still, Bobcat Pride would never subside, and in the closing ticks, down came EHS, with first Abrego and then newcomer Johnny Islas moving the team ahead, despite the score and time element. Pass receptions by Raul Ramirez and Ethan Calderon were productive but when the brutal Cerda crashed in for a sack yielding a 19-yard loss, the title went to North.
Of course it was Cerda putting the final signature on the historic document. He’s gained steam in 2022 like a massing hurricane in the Caribbean, and now is fully dominant from the middle of the North defense. He forced the fumbles, he made the sacks, and he just refused to stop. After the game, the relentless Sam stressed how much the Cougars have been wanting to taste this moment of glory.
“It’s Bobcats, so you know we had to turn up!” barked the 225-pound mauler who was sideline to sideline Friday, once again. “We’ve been waiting three years, some of us, to get to this point, to win this game. Some of our coaches were Bobcats and they pushed us all week in practice, we really worked hard for this.”
Cerda noted that all along the line, he has confidence in his team and especially praised his defensive pals for their contributions to the season’s success. Meanwhile offensive linemen Jose Zuniga and Stephen Flores were just as fired up about what their group has accomplished.
“We wanted this so bad!” said the rugged Zuniga, adding that he and rest of the line soldiers had been dreaming of something like this for a long time. “Four years, man, since freshman year, we believed that some day we could be here: we all wanted it!”
Flores, prominent part of the gang that has carved out healthy holes for Melendez and the other backs all season, agreed with Zuniga.
“That gold ball, man, that’s what it’s about, the trophy,” he said forcefully, and the Coog stars are just as dogged and determined in interviews as they are in protection or on the drive block. Football players! “The left side of the line, we’ve been together for a long time, and we all worked hard to get this gold ball!”
The final piece of the puzzle awaits the Coogs as they prepare to take on the Jags next week. Econ was beaten out in eastern Hidalgo County Friday, by La Joya, but none of the Old Gold are taking anything for granted. Most of them were on the field in 2021 when North was upset at home by the Coyotes, a defeat that ended up figuring in the program’s stymied playoff hunt, down the line.
Now back to Damian.
Gonzalez has labored long and hard since taking the reins at his alma mater, five years back. He’s been through the travails that only a head coach can truly feel at his core, made it through some testy times, and now is having his day. As he knows struggle, so too does he know what it feels like to hoist the trophy, having done so as a linemate back in 1992 for Coach Robert Alaniz and the champion Coogs. And Damian, well, he has always seen what was possible. What is possible.
“Remember what I said back during the scrimmage season: this team is different,” he said, after the celebrations had died down a bit, though no doubt the frolics were to continue late into the night, as should be the case on such a special evening. “We got the job done tonight against a very good rival, because these guys believe; they bought in, they worked, and they had a difference to them, the whole team. They have the belief, they know what they can do, and they’re doing it, and we couldn’t be happier right now.”
Gonzalez was proud of the way his team responded to the perennial challenge of EHS, and noted the decided impact of the defensive TDs, on a night when the Bobcats scratched and clawed to credibly subdue the power running of North.
“Those defensive plays cemented the game for us, and our defense was able to come up with some big stops as well,” he said. “We knew we were in for a dogfight all night, but guys like Cerda, well, they’re made for games like this and I think all our guys rose to the occasion tonight and did what they had to do.”
He’s waited and he’s worked, teaching the Cougars how to become winners, and gradually, inexorably, the hours of practice, the days in the weight room, all of it, has paid off. With one last hill to climb before the playoffs, North is back to the basics for Econ Week. Having come this close to an undisputed trophy and title, the Coogs will certainly come out with urgency and drive on Friday.
The gold ball, within their reach!