August 23, 2023

By Greg Selber

If town has seemed a little more lively lately, one intuits why, as with the end of summer comes the start of school and, of course, yay, sports. The local football teams have all been cranking away for weeks now, the scrimmages are done, and the latest season is set to begin Thursday. For the opening week of action, it will be Edinburg with the lid-lifter, Thursday at Richard R. Flores Stadium against visiting McAllen. The next night, Economedes is at Donna North while Vela opposes Edinburg North.

Each of the town teams has its plans for the coming wars, and each will seek to make the steady climb from non-district into league play – hopefully beyond – and on this count, the 6As in question (North, EHS, and Econ) will once again pile through five non-district dates until District 31-6A gets started in early October. For 5A Vela, however, the fun gets buzzing earlier, as the SaberCats have just two warm-up tilts before 15-5A begins in earnest at home against Weslaco East, on Thursday, Sept. 7.

Vela, 10-2 last season, will entertain two city rivals, as after the Cougar collision it will be Vela-Bobcats a week later. RVHS has become without question the gold standard in town and perhaps the best RGV program of the past decade, with a mammoth record of 92-15 in the past nine seasons, five three-deep trips into the playoffs, and an average of 41.5 ppg during that span. The Sabes motored to a program record of 614 points a year ago, becoming one of nine teams in Valley history to ever surpass 600 in a season. They are one of two schools to do it twice, following the 602-point masterclass of 2015. The other is Harlingen, whose dominant 2010 team churned out the current record of 709. The Cards muscled and zoomed their way to an even 600 a year later, for quite the back-to-back.

All this means that the Cougars and Bobcats will get a chance to see where they’re at, against class competition, right off the bat.


Rene Guzman, in his third year at the helm of his alma mater, has led the club to the playoffs in consecutive seasons, after the program missed the Dance in 2019-20. Last season the ‘Cats went 6-5 and bowed out of the playoffs after a narrow overtime loss to Weslaco, and Guzman now sets about replacing 35 seniors who graduated. The ‘Cats have scrimmaged Los Fresnos and Brownsville Hanna, possible playoff opponents from the Lower Valley 6A league, and Guzman has seen his team make some strides.

“We’ve improved, and that’s what we have to continue to do each week,” said Guzman, who added that because the team lost so many veterans from last season’s playoff squad, the mantra is, Grow Up Fast.
“At times so far we’ve shown a little inexperience, which is just what you get with new guys in there,” he explained. “Los Fresnos is always a contender down there and they looked pretty good. We got a lot of great work in against Hanna, we’ve got some correctable things to work on, so we’re ready to see how we do. We’re excited about it.”

The Bobcats should be set at quarterback with returner J.T. Santa Maria, who was explosive at times during his sophomore campaign, and former Vela passer Johnny Islas, who has a very strong arm. Ryen Abrego could be one of the most versatile offensive weapons in the district, and Guzman expects him to be a steady producer in 2023.

Replacing the backs and receivers from last year is a work in progress, with several talented newcomers ready to make a splash, including RB Brian Galindo and a sophomore prospect in R.J. Ramirez. Former defensive end David Garza is now a hybrid end on the other side of the ball, a tight end/slot, and his athleticism and size should make him a suitable target for the quarters. Jude Vega and Ethan Calderon, who got ample playing time in 2022, are stepping into more prominent wideout roles now.

Guzman’s plan is for a young offensive line to earn its stripes during the program’s always tough non-league slate, eventually becoming mature enough to help the offense be even more effective by the week. Steady center Adrian Salinas is back for a third season as the leader of that group, while Jesus Lerma is a seasoned tackle.
“They need to grow up quick, and they’re working hard to do just that,” Guzman said of his trench crew. “We want them to get better every game.”
The defensive line faces a replacement job too, as star edge man Jordan Ayala has graduated and is now in the track program up at Trinity in San Antonio. With Garza’s move to the offense, two Bobcats appear to be ready to step in, Ryan Garza and Seth Hernandez. Guzman notes that Hernandez, a junior, reminds him somewhat of Ayala with his quickness to the ball and playmaking ability.

“The D-line, like our O-line, this is where the focus has been somewhat,” Guzman said. “Our lines will key so they are going to have to grow up every day, learn the speed of the varsity game and adjust.”

Linebacking could be a team plus despite some graduation losses, with Angel Torres inside and senior Bryan Duron outside; Duron is a sure tackler with a knack for making blockers miss, and the play of the ‘backers will be huge for the unit as a whole.

Nick Gonzalez is back at corner for the D, with A.J. Avila also penciled in, but EHS must find fill-ins for Ben Gonzalez and Derrick Galindo, excellent secondary men who have moved on. Safety Woodrow Villarreal was impressive as a ballhawk in his freshman year and should be even better this season.

Thursday the Bobcats begin the slog against five straight schools who were playoff bound in 2022, but Guzman knows that there is a method to the seeming madness of the schedule.

“Good tests for us, every week, and sometimes I just look at the schedule and laugh,” he related. “Yes, it’s tough, but we are looking to improve in all aspects of the game, each week, whether we go 5-0 or 0-5. Sometimes we tell the kids about the 1999 Edinburg team, that had to hustle to even make the playoffs and then went four rounds deep. That’s what we are saying, how you start is not what matters, just keep playing, improving, and let’s get to district with a healthy and strong team.”


Last season was superb for North, as the Coogs won eight times and clinched a district title, marking their best season since back-to-back three-deep runs, 2012 and 2013. Heading into his sixth foray as boss at his alma mater, Damian Gonzalez is ready to try and repeat.

“The scrimmage went well against McAllen and Weslaco,” said the former North standout lineman. “We moved the ball pretty well, got some stops against McAllen, drove down inside the 5. When Mac High scored we came right back and scored, so that to me was a big thing. The kids responded to a little adversity. You always want to see that.”

Gonzalez says the latest edition in Old Gold has some seasoned guys but still some grad losses to make up for, especially on defense.

“We have some starters back like Isaiah Rico and Eli Cardenas, and Cardenas will be the captain out there; he’s very smart and we expect a lot from him. He was everywhere during the scrimmage, making plays, bringing the wood, playing with great confidence.”

In front of those hitters will be a host of line options, led by stocky whirlwind Sebastian Salamanca, who has moved from tackle out to end and will use his quickness and force to cause problems for opposing offenses. The Coogs have depth in the box this season and overall, will work on developing a series of comers to replace departed stars such as Sam Cerda, Keyshawn Garcia, and the Gonzalez Bros., Orly and Luis.
“Secondary, we lost about everyone, including Keyshawn, and you just have a hard time replacing a player like that,” Coach Gonzalez said of the fellow who had a phenomenal senior football season, went on to win gold at the state track meet, and is now running at the University of Houston.

Gonzalez sees lots of juniors coming up the ranks, and he notes that for the first time in a while, the program is on a real roll.

“The thing is, they have won, freshman, JV, some of our kids last year on varsity,” he suggested. “So they have the feeling of what it’s like to win, and they want it to continue. It’s a big deal because winning is a habit, hard to come by. Some of our new guys were a little wide-eyed in the scrimmage but as a coach, you always see that at first. I think a bunch of those kids are going to come on and help us this season.”

One youngster who will help is one who did his share during the title run of 2022, when the Coogs allowed just 22 points in five wins to run the 31-6A table. That’s sophomore Tyler Ruiz, who takes over the reins at quarterback after having spent last season at receiver.

“He’s bigger now than he was, stronger,” Gonzalez reported. “His legs kind of remind me of Randy Ramirez, who was a really strong kid for us back in the day. Tyler is an actual quarterback; he’s always played it, and some years here we haven’t had that. So we’re thinking he is going to do real well, he’s quick and agile, can really throw it. In the scrimmage, one play showed us how good he can be: he stepped up under pressure, shuffled over against the rush, and then threw a real laser downfield, right to the receiver.”

Ruiz won’t have to be the next Matt Munoz right off the bat, though, because the Coogs bring back one of the league’s most potent runners in tall slasher Uli Melendez. After booking for nearly 800 yards to key the title run, Melendez is ready to slay once again.

“You know what you’ve got there, which is a guy who can carry the load,” Gonzalez said. “He’s set to step up and have a big season. Our line will be athletic, with a few new guys, but I think we will be able to move the ball.”
Victor Avila is the center once again and he brings knowledge of the game and leadership, with tackle Diego Delgado an up-and-coming new face. Look for runners Rolly Ortega, a speedy track guy with some vision, and Miguel Rodriguez, a bruising fullback, to get some carries in 2023.

Gonzalez and Co. want to keep last year’s great things happening and appear to have the material on hand to make a strong fight at that.
“We’re in a good spot,” he said. “We are trying to replace guys who left but we’ve got some numbers, lots of guys who seem ready to play. When you win some games, you know, it just makes you want to win more.”

North and EHS, then, will go head to head with the SaberCats in the next fortnight or so, fighting against a trend that has become downright tedious in town. Vela has won 21 in a row against its city rivals, including six consecutive W’s versus Econ, which does not play Vela this season. The last time any of the three defeated Vela came back in October 2013, when the Coogs, on their way to the regional quarterfinals, clobbered their second-year sister school, 37-14, as Matt Whitesides rushed for 284 of the team’s 447 yards on the ground and the state-ranked defense snared five Vela passes.

In that 21-game streak of success, Vela has put up some incredible numbers, with the average margin of victory telling the tale: The Sabes have beaten Econ by an average of 39.8 ppg and has equally gaudy stats versus North (36.6 ppg margin) and EHS (36.9 ppg margin). In only one of the 21 games has the margin been less than 20 points, and in seven of them, the gulf between winner and loser has been north of 40 points. Simply unreal.


The Jags are spared the mountainous task of playing Vela, for now at least, until the realignment of next spring, and perhaps longer. Right now, the Orange concentrates on gradual improvement and entry into the 6A race. The last time the Jags went to the postseason was 2016, at the tail end of a streak that saw the school in the playoffs four times in five seasons starting in 2012.

One of the main reasons the program has struggled to make the recent grade comes down to offense, as Econ has scored just 12.9 ppg the past six seasons, allowing 31.3, winning a mere 23.4 percent of its contests. The man charged with turning it around is innovative and determined Raul Salas, and in his second season at the tiller, the former North QB is adamant that sooner than later, the East Side will be Strong once again.
In the quest to improve on last year’s 1-9 mark, when the Jags scored just 11.7 ppg, Salas notes that better strength in the weight room is part of the resurgence formula, along with the overall mindset of the kids.

“We’ve got some guys who have really worked hard in the summer,” Salas began. “Several of them have gone from, say, 175 on the bench press, to 225 or more. As we get stronger, we’ll be able to perform better, for an entire game. We’re feeling good right now, we had a solid scrimmage with P-SJ-A Memorial and the guys are ready to go for the season.”

Salas said that his group now has the numbers to compete, and that includes summer workouts, when attendance was spotless.

“Nobody missed, and I mean nobody,” he stressed. “They were all in here every day, working, learning, etc., and in the past that’s always been an issue at Econ. This group has bought in, and they’re doing the work, so we feel confident that if it all works out right, we’ll be in the race. We tell them every day: ‘There’s a chance for us,’ and the mental aspect, how they think and what they expect out of the program, has started to change for the better.”

The coach lauded the enthusiasm of the Jag faithful in recent months.
“We had a Meet the Jags night at our place and there were more than 125 people there, he said. “We have lots of support from the faculty and parents, the administration, and that is nice to see. The football staff has tried to do things with the kids that fit in with what we have here and what will work best.

“Now all we gotta do is fight for a playoff spot, win some games. This program is not about me, I am not that type of guy, and people know that … it’s about the kids, and what they can work for and accomplish. I think we’re getting close to a really rewarding season.”

As for the run to come, the Jags have more depth than they did in 2022, despite some key losses, and like EHS, possess not one but two options under (or behind) center. Returner “Juju” Eguia sat out the scrimmage with an injury but should be healed soon enough. Johan Nunez is the newcomer at the position and Salas thinks that competition is always a positive.

“Interesting to see, early on, those guys work and battle, trying to prove themselves,” he said. “I like to see it, because when you’ve got another guy trying for that spot it makes you work harder, do more. If you know it’s your spot, you may make mistakes and not worry about it. But when there’s competition, each guy is focused on cutting down mistakes, that is something I have learned during my career in football.”

No matter who’s at QB, Econ has a bell cow up front on offense who has become a trusted lieutenant on and off the field. Salas counts on returning tackle Jonathan Solis to help the squad as it moves forward.
“From Day One he’s been a leader, a super strong kid who carries himself like a leader and lets his teammates know what’s up,” he said. “Kid works hard, cares about the team and his attitude has always been contagious with the others.”

On the other side of the line, there are a series of prospects including Albert Jasso, a burly playmaker whom Salas hopes will be cleared and ready for the season after some health issues. Charlie Bell is a veteran linebacker who has shown his abilities in the past while Salas is high on junior Josias Villarreal, a well-built guy who should make plenty of plays in 2023. The defensive backfield is a front burner project due to grad losses, but the Orange hopes to rekindle the glory of the old days: Wrecking Crew, Bringing the Wood.

Salas has moved a couple of defensive players over into the backfield, mainly for toughness alongside elusive returner Daniel Delgadillo. And he and the staff – now in camp is a new OC, Ronnie Flores, the ex-McAllen Rowe superstar – believe the time is now for the group to show strides.
“We’re in a way better spot as a program, and myself, I have learned a ton about being a head coach,” Salas said. “I’ve got a much better grip on it all, compared to last year when we came in so late. With an offseason now behind us, I know what to expect when it comes to admin stuff, so that’s made it all a lot easier. We always tell the kids that we can’t promise that we’re going to win, just because we have worked hard. Nobody can promise that. But I can promise that if they have faith in the process, we’re going to be in a position to win some games. And we’ll do it the right way, with class, a tight ship. I know they can do it.”


Over at Vela the Sabes are ripping through the run-up, having had a quality scrimmage with Brownsville Vets, and Coach John Campbell is fired up for his seventh season in charge.

Now a glittering 61-10 in six seasons at the school – and winner of 161 lifetime games – Campbell is raring to get at the schedule of 10 games and prepare to make another long playoff run. Enough returning starters are on hand, with an influx of talented newcomers, to make Vela one of the teams to beat once again.

After getting clipped in the area round last season by a stern Corpus Christi Vets bunch, the Sabes tucked away some lessons but yet are not overly worried about the past.

“I would say that 2023 is a different animal altogether,” Campbell said. “Last year was last year and while it didn’t end like we thought it should, we took some steps along the learning curve as a staff. Last season at times we would have a dozen sophomores on the field, and you know, that can sound like a stereotypical excuse, but it was reality. But ’22 is done, bottom line, and now we approach the newest season, one which we are really, really excited about.”

And there is reason for excitement with Myles Lopez now ensconced at quarterback. Big and strong with a fine arm, the junior is the man, and Campbell likes what he has seen so far.

“He’s developed tremendously, we are really pleased with how comfortable he is back there,” said the coach of his new QB, who tossed for 549 yards and eight TDs in spot duty in 2022, as well as handling the punting chores. “He’s grown up a lot.”

When not throwing the thing around, Lopez will happily hand to Jamal Polley, one of the Valley’s leading returning rushers who galloped for 1,402 yards with 20 scores as a junior. Shifty Dimas De Leon and rugged Cyrus Golat make the Sabes runner-rich in 2023, with versatile Bernabe Gonzalez set as the Swiss Army Knife. Expect Vela to be dynamic and explosive as always, with an offensive line that went through the seasoning paces a year ago. Now, the bunch is potentially formidable.
“The entire group is back and they’ve been through the growth process,” Campbell said. “It’s apples and oranges, night and day, compared to where they were last season, and we think this group has the potential to be outstanding.”

Outstanding, too, is what the coaches anticipate from strapping senior Jaxson Shupe, who has moved out wide now and will surely torment opposition defenses with his size and speed.

“We think he’ll be sort of like a Justin Cantu out there, a big body who can go up and get the ball,” the coach mused. “And when he gets it, you know he’s a track star, so he can get up and go with the ball. Physically, he’s going to be a tough matchup for teams all season.”

To go with Shupe, the Sabes have some athletes on hand in Jacob Molina and fellow track man Jacob Trevino, plus baseball stud A.J. Reyes over from defense, where he was a steady hand in 2022.

Defensively, Vela will seek to replace graduated legends such as Jake Dufner and Justin Navarro and appears to have a nucleus of excellent kids with which to do so. Campbell’s bent has always been to run bodies in and out up front, use his depth well, and in 2023, he’s looking for Alekzander Sotelo, a real gamebreaker at times as a junior, to lead the way. Keep an eye on newcomer Gerardo Carr, who goes 245 up front and can move.

“The defense is a group that tends to take on a personality as the season goes along,” he noted. “We’ve got some new faces, a mix with the veterans, and I would say that one of our strongest units is the secondary, which is a bit of a switch from last season.”

Safeties Derek Rodriguez and Luis Garcia stack up well physically next to any pair in the Valley with Anthony Moreno set at a corner and promising Jarion Cruz expected to contribute on the corner and perhaps at receiver, for a bold program that has never hesitated to institute position moves when the situation arises.

Campbell and staff are fast at work bringing a relatively new linebacking corps up to speed, but the Sabes should be ready to duplicate last season’s success: less than 12 ppg allowed in 12 contests.

In all, it looks like another entertaining season in store for the Valley powerhouse. The district wars promise to be fraught with peril and yet replete with tantalizing possible rewards.

“I think several teams, including the Raiders and Mac High, are thinking about how far they can go, and we’re no different,” Campbell commented. “We are able to have those conversations with our guys from time to time. The program has been in some big games in the past and the kids sort of know what it’s about, playing the Westlakes, Vandegrifts, and Brennans. The thing is, you want your kids to understand what’s out there, what is possible, and then have some expectations that when they get to the big ones, they’ll be familiar with what that’s about.”

As stated, Campbell has begun his seventh season, having led the Sabes to three 12-win campaigns so far.

“You know, Mike [local hero Salinas, former Vela coach now at Texas A&M-Kingsville] laid the groundwork here very well,” he said. “This is a football town and community and that always helps. When I came in, I wanted to keep it going, add my own spin to it, and go from there. When I look at where we were when we started, and now seven years on, it’s all about having legitimate conversations about, for example, getting deep into the playoffs, maybe even the fifth round. With the realignment, we’ve been given a gift, our region is without Westlake, Lake Travis, those type of teams … no disrespect to anyone else, but it is what it is.”

Campbell, always the master of that sort of long-term psychology, uses the talk of long runs and glory as a spur to his unit.

“Sometimes after a poor workout we’ll say to them something like, ‘Hey, Smithson Valley would have whipped our butts the way we practiced today,’” he chuckled. “Bottom line, we need to have great expectations because there are other teams in our district, our region, who have them. I would say that the most rewarding thing about my time here, aside from wins and losses, has been the development of the overall program mentality. It’s been neat to see kids buy in, understand what we are trying to do, and work hard to achieve their goals.”

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