November 10, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Had they been so inclined, old-timers around town might have compared it to 1987, or 1998, as Weslaco and the Bobcats collided Thursday for a hard-hitting bi-district struggle yielding a low-scoring but highly competitive and decidedly old-fashioned ball game.
EHS had won both previous playoff chances against the Panthers, 13-6 in 1987 and then 18-8 in 1998, the latter victory coming at the start of a memorable three-year run under Coach Robert Vela that netted seven postseason wins. For current EHS leader Rene Guzman – who played in the 1987 contest as a ‘Cat – the third matchup between the two was just as fierce, as he saw his gallant troops charge ahead for four quarters, make a series of terrific stops on defense, and claw like mad to find some sort of offensive success.
The Panthers eventually came out on top, 16-13 in overtime, but the effort from EHS illustrates that Guzman and his staff have been able to infuse the ‘Cats with the same sort of grit, determination, and (Bobcat) pride that has made the program a perennial contender through the ages.
“Bottom line, we played four quarters, fought for four quarters, and then OT,” said Guzman after the fantastic football game at Richard R. Flores Stadium. “We hadn’t been seeing that sort of fight the last few weeks, for whatever reasons, but tonight these guys stepped up and gave a great effort. We have been talking about Faith Over Fear, which means that in the big games, we need to play hard with confidence and not let the moment get to us. Though we didn’t win tonight, I think we did do a great job of that.”
Guzman’s gang ended 6-5 (adjusted) for the season and earned a second consecutive playoff appearance. The Panthers, now 8-3, move on to the area round but do so knowing they were tested for 48 minutes-plus. And Guzman wants the Bobcats to relish the opportunity they got.
“It’s all about expectations, really,” he noted. “There’s nothing like playoff football, and our goal as a program is to get those experiences and make the most of them. It’s not enough just to get there, that is the key we are teaching. You want the kids to get the experience of going deeper, of winning some playoff games, so they get the games where the whole Valley is supporting them, in the later rounds.”
It’s been quite the season for EHS, which was in contention for the 31-6A title until some late stumbles, and as the offseason begins, Guzman has more lessons for his dogged band of soldiers.
“Faith Over Fear, trust your brothers next to you, know they’ll do their job and you’ll do yours,” he explained. “We want them to realize also that nothing is given, everything has to be earned. It’s the mindset where you fight to the end and you know what, we sure did that tonight.”
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BY NECESSITY
One knew it was the playoffs, and November, by the fact that thirty minutes before kickoff Thursday, it was already dark out. Definitely a different vibe to the proceedings, more excitement and pressure in the air, and when assistant coach Stevie Guerrero (who quarterbacked the ‘Cats to their last playoffs wins, back in 2010) sprinted full tilt down the sidelines toward the bench, as the coaches started to enter the field, you knew it was On.
These two had matched wits back on Sept. 9, same field, Weslaco winning 21-3. The rematch was a brawl from the start. The teams responded to Part 2 with a gutty display, not without glitches or lulls but certainly with the urgency Guzman was after from his group.
Weslaco, a luminary from the Lower Valley league returning to the playoffs after a year’s absence, was sharp from the get-go, churning downfield with alacrity before the Bobcats were able to blink. To signal a massive defensive night, a vintage version of the ancient “bend, don’t break” adage, the ‘Cats girded up to stop the Panthers, as senior end Jordan Ayala was to the fore for two huge plays with Weslaco just a few yards away from taking the lead. His breakneck rush on the passer forced an incomplete pass on fourth and 3 from the 4, and EHS had made the first of a handful of key defensive stands, at 7:22 of the first. Ayala was to finish with nine tackles in a great finale performance, and when it was over, he was absolutely spent, rightfully so.
After the turnover on downs, EHS was unable to move the ball, but senior Juan Davila came up with a 54-yard punt to ease the blow. Davila, who nailed a pair of field goals, punted very well, and contributed nine tackles (he was hot in the second half), was a warrior Thursday, illustrating the dedication that Guzman has been building in his team.
But here came Weslaco again, with quick-firing runs and pinpoint passing to the deep flats, and the Panthers reached the EHS 24 before stalling. Once again, the Red and Blue came up large, as cornerback Arturo Avila made a sound tackle on fourth down to bring the change of possession, late in the opening stanza.
It was all about the seniors in bi-district as Jacob Gonzalez, saddled with injuries during the second half of the slate, erupted for a 48-yard run on the next snap. Soon after though, it was sophomore J. T. Santa Maria in the spotlight. He seemed stopped after a 5-yard gain but refused to accept his fate, somehow breaking free from the pile and zooming in for the game’s first TD, from the 26 at 11:52 of the second period. Though he would leave the fray with an injury early in the second half, Santa Maria was effective, rushing for 56 yards as the team collected 172 on the ground; 57 from Gonzalez and 56 from fellow senior Noel Serna. EHS gained just 179 total yards against Weslaco, and allowed 393, but the offense made some plays when it had to, and the defense, as stated, was downright stingy in the Red Zone.
The quick-footed Ayala again was the bell cow on the next Weslaco series with two tackles. In the postseason clash, he had ample assistance from two other veterans, as linebacker Johnathan Maldonado made 13 stops Thursday and the ferocious Ramon Vasquez went out a winner, after a whopping 17 tackles on what might have been his finest night as a ‘Cat.
With the 7-0 lead, EHS went to work methodically with spirited lineman Carlos Arteaga and his mates roughing it up against a huge and quick front four from Weslaco. Gonzalez pounded for a first down on third and 2 and promising prospect Ethan Calderon slipped through for a 15-yard pickup off Jet Sweep action. The home boys got to the Weslaco 8 before the going got too tough, whereupon Davila came on to connect with a field goal, good for a 10-0 advantage at 4:37. To this point, Weslaco had moved the ball better and had to feel somewhat hard done by, down 10-0 nonetheless.
The score the Panthers then produced, on a 27-yard throw with 1:43 to go before halftime, was no less than they deserved, one could say. The teams had combined for 362 yards in the first two periods, but the game was about to go Old School.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
EHS had worked against a considerable wind in the second, and would do so again in the third, and its possessions after the half were hard sledding, to say the least. The ‘Cats only gained two first downs after the break, one by penalty, and had to dig in to play field position and defense for the duration, which they did.
Early in the third, the Panthers appeared to be percolating again, until Ayala pounced on a fumble caused by senior DB Ben Gonzalez, who made nine stops in a fine night of work; he’s one of the many Bobcats who have weathered injuries in 2022 but he picked a perfect day to come back strong.
By this time, Santa Maria was on the sidelines in a sling, meaning Ryen Abrego and Johnny Islas would have to shoulder the QB burden. Davila nailed a punt out of bounds at the Weslaco 7, and after two first downs, another fumble; this time it was Avila who stripped a ball-carrier and came up with the football, near midfield.
Alas, the ‘Cats could not capitalize on the break, and Weslaco soon got the pig back, driving nine plays to a tying field goal at 1:22 of the period. Freshman Woodrow Villarreal and Vasquez made a key stop to hold the Purple to three; Derrick Galindo was huge on pass defense to force the kick. By the way, keep an eye on Villarreal going forward; he’s long and lean with natural instincts, and if he gets into the weight room in the offseason, you may be looking at one of the best safeties in the RGV in due time.
As the fourth began, EHS struggling to keep possession and Weslaco wanting to take the lead, Vasquez was a man possessed with three hard hits on the series. On third and 2 from the 26, Ayala burst in for a tackle for loss and a 46-yard field goal attempt by Weslaco’s strong-legged kicker hung in the air, headed for the crossbar but fell just short. Yay wind, at 8:21.
EHS’ Serna cranked out a first down but then the ‘Cats lost the ball, Weslaco recovering. In the last stretches of the night, the Panthers picked off a pass but could not do anything with it, missing another field goal, this time from 42 yards out, and overtime it was.
Sometimes it’s nice to see what the other team can do first, in the back and forth. But EHS had it first, opting for the field goal on fourth and 3 from the 18, and Davila was true on the kick, making it 13-10, ‘Cats. Weslaco took its turn and ran four times for 18 yards, down to the 7. When a flat pass off play action was completed, barely, for six points (no PAT), the Panthers had survived to extend their season.
All of a sudden, a crushing silence, the realization, season finished.
So it was not to be for EHS in bi-district, but it was a close-run encounter that could have gone either way. Though they will lose a bevy of outstanding seniors to graduation when the summer hits, the Bobcats know that they’ve set the groundwork for those who are due to return. Guzman and Co. are here to stay in the fight, and against a worthy foe Thursday they gave 110 percent, refused to buckle when they might have, and showed the fire and moxie the coaches expect.
Many clubs had packed their gear last week, out of the running, while EHS advanced into the bracket and gave it all, for 48 minutes and a little bit more.