November 19, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
CORPUS CHRISTI – If one’s not in the right frame of mind, this town can be depressing. Depending on where you go in this windy, sprawling and gritty city of around 320,000, the going might be tough, with torn-up roads, depressed areas heaving silently in desperate decay, and impossible driving choices to make – on a dime – due to the confusing nature of the construction and its pock-marked casualties of concrete, debris strewn haphazardly about.
Of course, there are some considerably charming stretches, culturally significant parts, often in a suburban sense, and that is where one finds schools such as Calallen, Flour Bluff, and Corpus Christi Veterans. Down Leopard Street, though, where old Miller High School is located, the path is rocky, riven with potholes reminiscent of the ancient roads in Mercedes, and hard to figure.
That’s where Buccaneer Stadium is to be found, a venerable yet refurbished football palace originally erected in 1940 to celebrate the 1938 state title won by Corpus Christi High, the original Bucs who became the Miller Bucs in time. It’s been the site of many great games in the past, also of a decade’s worth of charity fundraiser bouts, the Menudo Bowl (seriously) that ran from 1974 to 1988. Hey, even the Beach Boys (seriously!) played the makeshift venue back in 1982, taking the stage after none other than Jerry Jeff Walker had opened Pat Magee’s Sea Fest event. Magic Time Machine.
Buccaneer Stadium. Also now, the place where a glorious Vela football campaign came to a thud of an end Friday night in the area round of the playoffs. Like a tentative driver realizing only too late that he has been traveling down a one-way street the wrong way, Vela went up to Corpus with dreams of a record-setting playoff run in mind but ended up on the side of the metaphorical road, amid the wreckage, surrounded by crags of cement and holes with fetid water, and eyed with distrust by sullen locals loitering in the neighborhood.
And to top it off, after a deadening 14-7 loss to a finely tuned Veterans club that hit harder and moved faster on defense than folks might have predicted, there was the rain.
Everyone thought it would be one of those memorable nights, cold and rainy, and people dressed accordingly with snuggly efficiency and no little excitement, prepared to watch their beloved team battle to another win, against the weather and the Eagles as well. The skies had sprayed their pregame wares upon early birds who crept up onto 281 headed to the Coastal Bend ahead of time. Some of the old-time diehards were there by 4 or 5, surveying the scene and thinking, wow, we just thought we had crappy roads in the Valley. This place is a moonscape.
And yet the rain did not make an appearance during the game, as it was crisp but dry throughout, perfect playoff climes. Never even threatened. But after Vela’s last football gasp died on the postseason vine, via an interception with about four minutes to go, and after the Eagles had leapt around, celebrating (as well they should have following a very solid effort) the Valley contingent headed to the vehicles for a really, really long trip home. The worst kind. Who wants to eat? Meh.
Only then did the heavens start to emit the expected returns, as moderate sheets of rain came shuttling down consistently after the 10 o’clock hour. They say that rain wipes memories off the sidewalks of life. This may be true, if cloying.
As the SaberCats headed south Friday, they knew one thing more than any other. The 14-7 defeat at the hands of CC Vets washed away the chance at probably the easiest third round playoff game in the history of Texas high school football, no disrespect, as former Vela assistant coach Patrick Shelby has led his McAllen Bulldogs to a pair of surprising results in the 5A Second Season and will now take on Vets with a berth in the Division I state quarterfinals at stake. McAllen. Not Westlake or Brandeis or Brennan. McAllen.
The Golden Road was about to open up for Vela, the Paybacks Rematch with Pharr North in the wings. And now, that path is somewhat like the tired and aching avenues and boulevards of the rundown inner edges of Corpus, leading nowhere but sadness. Pharr North did its bit over Miller and is on to the third round. Vela did not and is not.
Rare Air. Fast as a Swiftie ticket … gone.
HOT SHOT, NOW
The amazing part about Friday was that the high-voltage Sabes, with more than 600 points to their name, scored on their first snap from scrimmage, a 42-yard run by senior Jamal Polley less than two minutes in. The gaping hole Polley got to boogie through was wider than any pothole in Corpus. and he ran like it, nice and easy, stylin’ for the six. But that would be it for Vela in the points department, unbelievably.
The shock score had come after Vela manhandled the Eagle offense on its first possession, Alexzander Sotelo flipping a ball-carrier roughly and Jake Dufner storming in like a Blue Norther to force an incomplete pass. After Vets punted, Vela was at the 42 and scored briskly, as we suggested.
And they never scored again. That was the most amazing part of the whole evening. The whole Mirror Image theme, pinball and video game football, high scoring, all that went out the window shortly after Polley’s romp. And as it settled in, it started to seem to some folks that this area rounder might end being a defensive brawl with two or three miscues as the telltale elements. Like Pharr North.
If there was a deciding factor in the game – and there must be one or two or we aren’t talking about a decision or result in a technical, logical or mathematical sense – it was the play of Elijah Durrette, Vets QB, who was simply out of this world. Every time the Sabes got pressure on him, he picked the right time and place to do something about it, taking off on the run to convert three third-and-long situations in the first half. Two such conversions came on the next Eagle series, after the kickoff. Vets, now 10-2 like Vela, scooted downfield with precision until a 17-yard pass produced a TD on third down, for a 7-7 tie. In this clash, the Eagles were better on third down.
When Vela next saw the pig, it was at midfield after a penalty v. Vets, on the kickoff. But the O could not take advantage of that field position, as Vets consistently started to get three and four kids in on every tackle, their helmets thwacking the Sabes rat-a-tat-tat, pack-pack-pack; an impressive display of gang tackling from a program many know more for its offensive exploits.
Luckily, the Blue and Black defensive unit, while struggling to contain the senior Durrette, was headed for a surely sound and some might say outstanding performance. Though the secondary looked a little befuddled at times, sophomore safety Luis Garcia (he will be a bulwark for next year’s D) came up with two tackles and Vets punted away. Away from Navarro, all night. Hudl.
As the quarter waned, Vela carved out a first down, one of only eight it would get in area, but was forced to boot again. Dufner then came up with one of the team’s six sacks to snuff out the ensuing CC Vets drive. The D would increase its pressure on the passer as the game wore on, having started the night allowing Durrette enough time to pick the scheme apart in dribs and drabs to the deep flat, sideline stuff. Uber-accurate.
Trouble arose in the second period as Vela was pinned at its own 9 and eventually punted away, with the run game stunted and the passing game harried by onrushing Eagles. What would work?
The Eagles were looking for the lead at 5:04, perched on the Vela 45, but soon after the series began, junior Robert Cantu flushed it with a key fumble recovery. He eventually left the game with an injury, but the little hustler Cantu was tough in the clutch with six tackles and a sack to go with his fumble recovery.
Now came the Key Juncture of the night and season, Vela alive again. Polley rolled to a first down and then Bobby Garcia found fellow senior Navarro for a 24-yard pickup. They were all over Navarro all night, were the Eagles, and he did well to end with seven catches for 83 yards, such was the attention the game-breaker received from the enemy. Now dangerous 7 ran for six after Dimas De Leon went for seven, to a first and 10 at the 14. Here, though, the attack bogged down and a 24-yard field goal try was ruled no good, though for the life of many, it seemed to sneak inside the right upright just as it spun outward. No matter, no score, and the unthinkable then occurred.
Back came Vets with a series of sharp passes to the wide areas, until a 44-yard bomb straight down a wide-open middle hit the end zone with just 0:25 left before halftime. Ka-bam!!
There it was, a 14-point swing and total surprise, and for a Vela program that has been building seasoning on the fly in 2022, it was a moment that revealed a long forgotten fact: most of these cats have not been in this sort of game before. Outside of the senior skills guys, for the most part, the Sabes have always had to battle against inexperience, and ideally, at this stage of the season, the sophomores have become juniors, the juniors, seniors. That evolution has happened, by and large, for Vela, but allowing the score after failing to get one, particularly with the break looming, was just a very bad thing indeed.
STALEMATE AND SACKS
This was still anyone’s prize, and everyone knew it. The top teams will never fixate on the scoreboard, or the plays that have passed. Their members just adjust, get back on it, as Vela has generally done for nine seasons, and get going.
Another slick though pop-filled run by wildcat Navarro produced a first down on Vela’s first series of the third period. But soon the Sabes were punting, and it was a mess, resulting in a 13-yard loss and: possession, Vets at the foe’s 32. Here the defense manned up to resist with first Alejandro Pinzon and then Cantu sliding in to get a clobber on Durrette, and Vela had held. Boisterous business on the sidelines and in the stands, and here we go! A 21-yard ball to Navarro got the motor running, until the Sabes dropped a sure touchdown over the middle on third and long. Pull over. Punctured tire.
The Eagles surged after the punt.
With four first downs, Vets was in the money, almost; a 22-yard completion sent the sticks to the Vela 8, but at this stage, heroics from junior DB A.J. Moreno and then linebacker Julian Guevara (effective night of toil, nine tackles, Moreno had same) saved the day once again. Bustling Christian Rios forced a fumble that was gloved by junior DB A.J. Reyes, and the Valley kids had come through once again on D.
This had to be the moment for the Sabes, as they had parried some wicked blows from the Eagles and were still standing. From the 8, they went to task, and Navarro grabbed a 12-yard toss for a first down. The Vets defense was not having it, though, and would only yield 224 yards Friday, a far cry from the 480 yards per game Vela had been averaging in six outings since the Raiders limited the attack to 194, back in September. Still, a Garcia pass to junior Jaxson Shupe netted 14 more, before again the offense stalled.
So awesome on special teams for eons and eons, Vela did not have a positive night in that phase against Vets, and the next punt was next to nil, giving the Eagles the ball at the Vela 38, fourth period looming. The tremendous defensive stops notwithstanding, the Sabes went into Crunch Time needing to find some of the magic, though the potion and powder of rejuvenation had been hitherto seldom seen Friday, it must be said.
Ah ha, a great series for Vela, as LB Adrian Alvarez made a sure tackle and DB Jorge Vazquez got there in time, deep downfield, to force an INC. When Dufner crashed in for another sack, Coach John Campbell’s gutty D had done it again.
The pattern of a big play here and there, mixed in with many snaps where the line-of-scrimmage skirmish went decidedly to the Vets defense, then repeated. Senior receiver Carlos Tamez, bottled up most of the night by a fasty, nasty Eagle secondary, rocked loose for 23 yards on the reverse but two plays later, a fumble ended the chance.
Never fear, because here came Guevara rampaging for yet another trap of the QB – Vela adjusted superbly to hold the Corpus group to seven first downs after the intermission – but Vela’s next possession, with time racing along in the fourth, ended with a sack as well. All the OL Hogs will be back for more in 2023, and will form, as they have at times in 2022, one of the best quintets in the Valley. Friday was just a tough muster all around, up front.
It was like watching tennis now, really violent tennis, which would probably make for very good TV. At any rate, Sotelo zoomed in and sacked the elusive Durrette (23 for 32, 220 yards) and now, now … 4:38 left, Sabes had it back, and were about to put things to right with one of their patented championship drives. Pencil in that the opportunity began at the Eagle 41, and it was oh, so promising for the Valley. Garcia ran swiftly for 8 but on second and short a rollout right went wrong as Eagles swarmed from the edge and the pass was intercepted. One could have heard the proverbial pin drop now, real serious trouble.
The Eagles, as all smart teams will do, took their time clicking off eight plays, finally subsiding at the Vela 23, with under a minute to go. The Sabes, having had to use their timeouts to keep the clock at bay, had time for two snaps, one hook-and-ladder that was deep-sixed by the hurtling Eagle defenders, and a short pass as time ran out. Out.
NEVER CAN SAY ‘GOODBYE’
Truth come hard, tough to say at this point. Was it a successful season? It obviously was, unless you consider 10 wins and a program scoring record a downer of a campaign. Was it a disappointing showing in the area round? First answer, no, and yes. Frank analysis would reveal that the Eagles, though down a peg in ’22 from their five-year Odyssey into the ranks of the region’s elite, were still plenty enough. They earned the win, and Vela did not fail or choke, or anything like that. The Sabes just ran up against a well-coached team that executed in the key stretches, and though the Vela defense was Masada-like for so much of the night, making stand after stand, it wasn’t enough.
No blame should be parceled out by any, save the nitwits out there, and as we know, that is what they do; everyone has to do something. Truth is, Vela was in against a formidable foe, was a formidable foe itself, and took its shots. The team was not perfect and none ever is. There will, though, be the inevitable, maddening gnaw of what might have been, of course, because every team that thinks it can win, and doesn’t, has to suffer that pang of regret. For a long time, because this is football, and it hurts. The hurting makes it better when again the high times roll, and those memories of sadder days get washed away like grime off the mean Corpus streets.
But the Sabes will have to wait until next year to start to excise the emotions of what happened in Corpus Friday night. That’s the way it is for every team but one, in the end, from each classification and division. Only one champ.
Maybe the Vela crowd will go see McAllen against CC Vets, doubt it. They might not even want to check the score, knowing full well that this was not in their plans. Could have been Vela, and many would insist, should have been Vela, slamming through the Bulldogs into the Real Rare Air of Round Four, where past iterations of this fine program have credibly threatened to go but to date have not.