November 17, 2022

By Greg Selber

Time for a shot at the Rare Air, as Vela (10-1) advances to the area round of the football playoffs, to take on formidable Corpus Christi Veterans (9-2). That game will come off Friday in Corpus, at Buc Stadium, pitting a pair of high-flying programs in a match that will probably have fireworks early and often.

The SaberCats pounded Weslaco East last week in bi-district, marking their second victory over the Wildcats in 2022, and now turn attention to one of the region’s most impressive programs. In doing so, they will be looking at a balanced and talented team that reminds them of … of …

Veterans represents a mirror image of Vela in some ways, a new program that has captured 79 percent of its games since starting out in 2016. The Sabes have nearly as good a winning clip in their 11 seasons of football. Both are versatile execution machines that have become used to winning football in a very short time. Perennial title faves.

Like Vela, Vets struggled for like two seconds before becoming like, really good. The Eagles went 4-6 their first season in 2016 but exploded after that with five straight 10-win seasons and three fourth-round trips from 2018-21. Along the way, Vets has beaten Valley teams in the playoffs six times in seven tries. Last season the team went 12-2 and knocked off Brownsville Vets and McAllen Memorial, both by shutout, in the early rounds. The Eagles’ only career debit in the postseason versus the RGV came in 2018, when Mission Vets clipped them in a memorable third stage affair, 62-55. And that was a wildly talented ’18 Patriot squad that became one of the less than 20 RGV bands to ever make it to the fourth stage of the bracket.

Sharp and well-drilled, the Eagles, like Vela, have had a high-scoring unit most seasons, with a high of 695 points in 2020, and four other 500-plus point years. In 2022, Vets has now scored 440 points after its 70-14 demolition of Medina Valley in bi-district. While many will say that this year’s edition is not quite as scary as the ones of the recent past, there is no doubt that the Eagles are fully capable of ending the SaberCat season and may be considered a slight favorite to come out on top Friday, playing in Corpus. They are a smart, precision outfit with good-not-great athleticism, a unit that performs consistently and makes few mistakes.

Their losses – to New Braunfels Canyon by 1 and El Campo in overtime – came early during a 1-2 start, whereupon the Eagles rolled to seven wins in a row to close the regular season, culminating in a smashing of an average Medina Valley squad in the first playoff go. Vets has averaged more than 500 yards of offense per game, with highs of 637 against CC Moody and 627 versus Victoria West.

Quarterback Elijah Durrette has thrown for close to 2,700 yards with 31 TDs/8 INT and rushed for more than 600, with 10 touchdowns. The Eagles have two good backs, neither a superstar, though senior Jaiden Castaneda went past the 1,000-yard mark last week. The receiving corps is sort of by committee, with four solid kids who are interchangeable to go with senior Alejandro Guerrero (810 yards).

Linebacker Homer Barrera-Lopez leads the defense with close to 100 tackles while junior safety Luke Johnson is a junior who has also contributed at receiver. Another Eagle who does double duty is Christian Sabsook, a corner who has made 40 tackles and compiled more than 400 yards receiving. Vets has three defensive linemen who go about 220 each on a unit that has posted three shutouts in 2022 but was also torched for 43 points once, and for 31 and 34 on two other occasions.

The 34 came against league foe CC Miller in a 4-point Eagle victory back in October; Miller is in the second round against Vela rival Pharr North, and if both Valley teams can get past a very difficult second round schedule, they stand a good chance of advancing past the third-to reprise the first match between Raiders and Sabes, which ended with North on top, 28-21 in September. Will it happen? A definite maybe.

The winner of Vela-Vets will take on the victor in an area bout pitting SA South Side (10-1) against 6-5 McAllen, which upset Harlingen South in bi-district. As regional quarterfinals go, that is a dream for the Sabes, all due respect.

The survivor of Pharr North-Miller will face the winner between Brownsville Vets (9-2) and Victoria West, after the latter squad got past a higher ranked SA Southwest group in the first round. Like CC Vets, Miller romped to 70 points in bi-district, clobbering an outmatched SA Southwest Legacy team which came into the Dance at just 5-5. Brownsville Vets is no stranger to high scores, as the Chargers established a modern-day Valley record for points in a game by erupting for 85 against hapless Brownsville Lopez late in the regular season.

This season the Sabes have already set the program record for most points in a single campaign, launching over the 600 plateau (607) with the 49-3 win over East, eclipsing the mark of 602 set in 2015. Vela has done this in two fewer games, which is impressive to say the most.

Against East the running talents of senior Jamal Polley did the trick, as the Blue and Black passed sparingly, picking up 83 yards, but sent the elusive Polley into the breach, where he amassed a career-high 282 yards and four touchdowns. Shades of P.J. Rivera for the new No. 1. For 2022, Polley has collected 1,309 yards and 19 scores on the ground, while backfield mate Dimas De Leon has been a great combo partner with 703 yards and 11 TDs on the ground.

The reliance on the run against the Wildcats shows the versatility of this year’s Sabe crew, as previously, it had been quarterback Bobby Garcia burning down defenses during the latter stages of the slate. The senior Garcia chunked for 200 yards or more in four of the last five district ball games and for the season has netted 1,318 with 16 TDs and only two interceptions. His completion rate of 79 percent is among the highest in the region this season, and with stars such as Carlos Tamez and Justin Navarro, he’s got big-time targets. Tamez has 47 receptions to lead the team while Navarro averages 18.9 per catch (11 scores) and has added six rushing sixes to go with his amazing ability on the return teams. Perhaps the wild card in the passing game is junior end Jaxson Shupe, who has become a game-breaking master in 2022 with a whopping 28.9 yards per catch.

Scoring then, is a Vela specialty, and in Lalo Valdez, it has a kicker who has simply been incredible this season, making 75 extra points in a row and connecting on 11 of 13 field goals so far.

Defensively, Vela has fashioned an excellent campaign, having allowed just 127 points so far in 11 games, and on five nights has given seven points or less. Roughly, this year’s D is on a par with the fine unit of 2021, whose average yield of 10 ppg is the best in school history.

Speaking of history, the victory over East gave the program six 10-win seasons all time, and the overall record now stands at 97-29, meaning that the Sabes could conceivably reach the century mark with a record-setting run through the bracket. They’ve been past area five times in 10 seasons without managing that magical and elusive Third Win, losing to Westlake and Vandegrift twice, SA Brennan once.

The move down to Class 5A might just end up being the genius stroke of all time, it appears, but ironically, the next step will be the toughest of all. In going 5-2 during the second round all time, Vela has beaten Victoria East, Eagle Pass twice, Laredo Alexander once, and SA Taft last year; the area defeats came in 2014 to Victoria West (the first playoff appearance in school history) and in 2020 to Brennan. The Sabes are 8-1 lifetime against Valley teams in the playoffs, and the lone debit – back in 2016 to Weslaco East – was posthumously avenged last week over in McAllen.

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