November 11, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It is a longstanding truism, to be sure: in playoff football, the window of opportunity opens and closes more rapidly than it does during the regular season. And with that said, it follows that there will be four or five snaps in the course of a postseason game that determine the outcome, for better or worse. The lag time, the chance to pause and think, retool? Way briefer in November: hesitate, trouble.
Friday night, the Cougars found out that though these axioms may date back to the halcyon days of leather helmets (and one would argue are as ancient as primal warfare and combat themselves), they hold up under strain and scrutiny.
Despite gaining more yards than their opponent, and despite some monumental stands from the defense in the clutch, the Coogs saw their season end at the hands of Los Fresnos. The outcome of 21-6 for the Falcons gave all assembled locals at Richard R. Flores Stadium a lesson in how quickly the die can become cast.
Five times did North (8-3, its best record since 2013) venture past the Falcon 28-yard line, yet this promising series of forays yielded zero points. In fact, twice in the second half did the home side get to the Los Fresnos 3, only to be turned away. Earlier, the first quarter had seen the Old Gold achieve excellent field position, getting to the 28, 22, and 8, but without a scratch.
Though the formidable defense held Los Fresnos to 55 yards in the second half, on three first downs, by then it was getting late. The visitor had scored three times in the last six minutes or so of the first half, taking advantage of North mistakes – there were five frustrating turnovers by the 31-6A champs Friday – and the program spent a long night trying to iron out kinks on the fly, only to see the window of opportunity crash down on its head, with finality.
Every time the squad got going, the going got tougher, and no amount of musing at what might have been will change the denouement. Given a shot at ending a 5-game playoff losing streak, the Coogs faltered in the key junctures, and will play no more in 2022.
The bi-district loss marks the fourth time North has gone down against Los Fresnos in the postseason, against a single victory, back in 2009, and now the Falcons head on to the area round. All day Friday the buzz was about football yes, but also weather, as a storm was brewing down the road a piece; the prediction was that as the night progressed, the temperature would plummet and the rains would come. With little more than two minutes to go in the fourth, it started to happen, and an hour after the final whistle, the promised conditions did indeed ensue. But the football storm that many thought would carry North on in the bracket, send it onward toward the Rare Air of the playoffs … it threatened but never really came good.
FAST OUT OF THE GATE
What makes this loss so distressing is easy to unpack. it started where all tragedies begin, right off the bat. Thanks to a sack from marauding tackle Sebastian Salamanca, North got the ball for the first possession at the Los Fresnos 46. But quickly there was an interception, at the 2, on a deep ball. No worries, as the defense – with senior Sam Cerda registering two of his trademark smackles – forced a punt, which gave North the ball back at the Los Fresnos 38. But again, the Coogs were faulty, as a 15-yard pass completion ended in a lost fumble, just outside the Red Zone at 6:37.
Luckily, linebacker Eliezer Cardenas, who was phenomenal with 13 tackles Friday – raged in for a pair of stops, and dynamic senior safety Keyshawn Garcia – perhaps Man of the Match once again for his all-around excellence – raced over to knock away a pass attempt on the sideline.
It might have been 14-0 at this stage, but it was instead scoreless, North undaunted. Unleashing junior slammer Uli Melendez six times on the next drive, the Coogs romped to a first and goal from the 8, only to see the march die on the vine after a missed field goal at 0:47.
Los Fresnos had seemed there for the taking, about to go under, but still, no points on the boards, chances squandered, and the Falcons about to wake up and get with the program.
Coach David Cantu’s Lower Valley group is young, inexperienced at key spots, but certainly potent with its elusive freshman QB. That’s a thing lately, youth kick, have you noticed? But when Angel Rodriguez stormed in for a sack, the next LF possession subsided; corner Salva Suarez contributed a solid stick out wide to force a punt, and now North got it back again, determined to execute and score.
This did not transpire, and a poor subsequent punt gave the Falcons the momentum. Starting at the North 38, Los Fresnos benefited from a pass interference penalty to get into range and dented the end zone on a short pass at 6:20 of the half, to lead 7-0.
Not Panic Time by any means, but the works were thoroughly gummed now, as the Falcons started to lay some licks and the North offense was struggling for continuity. A three-and-out enabled Los Fresnos to come calling again, from its own 48 – field position had changed hands along with energy – and at 1:02, another touchdown pass gave the visitor a 14-0 advantage.
For the night, Los Fresnos was balanced if not prolific, gaining 82 yards on the ground and 125 in the air. North meanwhile ran for 189 but passed for a measly 47, with three picks. One of the errant throws, on the first snap after the kickoff, set Cantu’s gang up at the 41, and on the next play, Panic Time.
Many times when a team gets a turnover, the strategy calls for something tricky, and here, Los Fresnos followed the script with aplomb, pulling off the ol’ Flea Flicker – handoff, back turns and pitches back to the QB – and it was right on the money, as the pass went straight down the wide open middle to an equally wide open receiver, and 41 yards later – 35 seconds after the second Falcon score – it was 21-0. Not exactly Game Over, as we shall see, but certainly time for some Old Gold soul-searching.
The third quarter started to seem like the first as after an exchange of three-and-outs, North getting a sack from junior Isaiah Rico (he played a great game in bi-district), North got rolling. Garcia turned in a ringing punt return to set the team up at the Los Fresnos 40, and on the first play from scrimmage, Chris Barrera detonated, cruising all the way to the house at 9:27. This time, North took the chance it was offered, and now seemed bouta to take command of the night, albeit tardily. The defense did its job again, Garcia jettes away for another star-studded punt return, and here were the Coogs, in business at the enemy 27. Score here and total Game On, and when North got to a first and goal at the 3, the slightly moribund crowd finally started to make some noise.
However, a pair of motion penalties put the kibosh on the mojo, and at 3:55, the Falcons were able to rush in and block the field goal try. Seven points would have been perfect, three would have been OK … but zero points, after such a golden road had opened up, it was just a killer.
Though Rico and Cardenas combined to halt the next Los Fresnos drive, North did not move it after the boot, but enter Garcia, the fabulous track athlete who has proven to be equally sensational on the gridiron. He leapt in front to snag an interception and rambled down to the Falcon 32. But to illustrate the problems North experienced under the glaring and unforgiving playoff lights, a penalty on the return cost the Coogs 22 yards on the exchange. Still, the home side rallied down to the Los Fresnos 3, with Melendez (85 yards Friday) ramming for 12 yards and senior QB Oscar Campos pinballing for 29 more. But inside the 5, disaster and a lost fumble, and that is just the way it went for North in bi-district.
Falling out in the first round should not obscure the considerable success of 2022, as the Coogs caught fire after a middling start, winning six in a row to tuck away the program’s first league title in more than 20 years. All season long, the Coogs rode a filthy defense and a potent running game to eight wins, including success against rivals EHS and Econ. It’s been a super season all told.
But again, postseason football is about moments in time, quick flashes of promise wrapped around key stretches that tell the tale. And with the chips on the table Friday, the Coogs could not get out of their own way. It was out there, hanging in the offing, ready to be seized. And now it has passed, as the final window has slammed shut for ’22.