August 24, 2023

By Greg Selber

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It was a Bobcat football tradition back in the day: facing very difficult foes in non-district such as Victoria and Gregory-Portland, or Corpus schools, for example, and taking some lumps in preparation for the real object, district. There were seasons under Coach Richard Flores, and later Robert Vela when the ‘Cats might start out with a couple losses, maybe even be under .500, and then – armed with the lessons of struggle and the fruits of learning – go ahead and just clean the district clock.

Current EHS Coach Rene Guzman knows all about it, because he lived it as a player for the program in the late 1980s, and now he’s teaching his kids about adversity, how to respond and how to keep battling, with faith that through supreme tests early in the year, a worthy edition will emerge.

Which makes Thursday’s opening game at home against McAllen a pretty fair object lesson for all concerned parties. Though the Bobcats ended up on the short end of a 39-23 score against the Bulldogs – who went rolling through the 5A playoff bracket to the third round last season – they played suitably well for three quarters and were leading 23-18 in the third before McAllen pulled away with 21 unanswered markers.

And after the renewal of a rivalry that stretches back to the mid-1920s, Guzman unpacked the main points of what had to be considered a very promising beginning.

“It’s going to take four quarters,” he began, in the aftermath at Richard R. Flores Stadium. “We made progress from the scrimmages and we showed improvement in all areas. The wheels came off a little bit at the end, but we’re getting better. I saw something I hadn’t seen in the early going of the season, and that’s the fight. We fought all night and if we can now put four quarters of football together, we’re going to be tough.”

Guzman loved his team’s fire against a McAllen squad picked to contend for the championship in its league, and he noted that Thursday will be a stable stepping-stone for the rest of non-district, or Vela, both Weslacos, and San Benito. Shudder. But not.

“We have got to be ready for these games because each one is going to get us sharper for district,” he explained. “I told the guys that it’s OK to be angry right now, because they think they could have won. Mentally, we need to really be on it in the coming days. We showed our inexperience at times, which we expected, and we were huffing and puffing there a little at the end. But we went toe to toe with a team that went three-deep last year, and we held our own; I think we showed what we are capable of.”

Assuredly the underdog ‘Cats did show what they are capable of, compiling 355 total yards by breaking off a handful of exciting long-gainers, and the game was back and forth until the final section, entertaining football with fewer mistakes on either side than one would generally anticipate for the season lid-lifter. In the end, McAllen’s bevy of outstanding athletes got it going when it counted, and four EHS turnovers definitely turned the tide in the visitor’s favor.

But to start out, as the community gathered for the start of an annual fall ritual that always brings a smile to the faces of the folk, Edinburg was more than OK. The Bobcats were strong. SUMMER’S OVER

Guzman’s gang came out airborne, with junior J.T. Santa Maria hitting his first five passes of the night, but an early fumble gave the ‘Cats a chance to practice handling the adversity the coach had anticipated, the kind that every coach anticipates in the nascent stages of the campaign. A defense retooled after graduation losses came up large after the turnover, as senior Nicholas Gonzalez leapt in the air like a panther to snare an interception, giving EHS the ball back. Second play of the second drive: Santa Maria lofted a picture-perfect spiral to sophomore Jude Vega, down the right sideline. Vega, who was to enjoy a breakout game with six catches for 136 yards, gloved the gem in stride and went 39 yards for a touchdown at 5:42. Adversity. To McAllen.

The Bulldogs, under former Vela assistant Patrick Shelby, did their part to recover from the punch in the face, driving with precision downfield to a touchdown of their own late in the first, but experienced a downer on the PAT, missing to trail 7-6. Some people had the ‘Dogs as anywhere from 14- to 21-point favorites coming in, but Guzman’s squad acted like they hadn’t read the post, now riding a thrilling 43-yard scamper from the talented Santa Maria, which eventuated in a field goal from sophomore kicker Jesus Chavez and a 10-6 lead. Well, look here now. Impressive.

The theme of the first half was tennis, or ping pong, as McAllen then answered with a touchdown to go up 12-10, again botching the extra-point attempt, a sub-theme of the night for the Bulldogs. At 9:48 of the second, a barnburner was in progress.

The scoring spree slowed down somewhat as a lasered-in Angel Torres of EHS led the defensive pack from his linebacker spot and the teams took a breath. Then, midway through the second, the first big mistake, as McAllen jumped on a short pass and ran a 2-yard Pick 6 in for an 18-10 lead, this after the ‘Cats had been pinned deep on a Mac punt.

Rather than crater or even blink, Edinburg went back to work as Santa Maria and Vega combined once again. They just missed on one tantalizing try and then on the next snap, the QB found his speedy wideout wide-open down the middle for a 67-yard scorcher of a gain, leading to Santa Maria’s short TD smash with 1:01 to go before halftime. One could not ask for a better rejoinder, as after the turnover-and-six, the home side got up off the mat and delivered a haymaker of its own.

By the half, it was 18-16 McAllen, the ‘Cats having outgained the enemy but suffered a pair of giveaways. Anybody’s night, tho. THIS IS FOR REAL
Coming out of the lockers after intermission, the Bulldogs seemed to be re-energized, and probably still shaking off the surprise. They ran to a pair of first downs and benefitted from a penalty on the ‘Cats. However, just when it seemed that the ‘Dogs would increase their lead, EHS stepped up with a key stop, an interception provided by A.J. Avila.

Unable to shake Santa Maria loose (he finished with 91 yards on the ground, the team picked up a healthy 190 in the opener), EHS punted away and then had to play D again. After Shelby’s squad marched into position once more, a fierce pass rush from teammates Seth Hernandez and Alexis Aranda was part of a stand that turned the ball over on downs at the ‘Cat 37.


On the second play of the drive, senior Ryen Abrego took his star turn, electrifying the crowd by motoring 67 yards up the gut, breaking away to scoot the entire length of the green at 4:01 of the third. Then ensued one of the highlights, literally, of the night.

The first time it happened, most people thought that the light system had blown a fuse, as it got dark after the first EHS score, back in the opening half. But it soon became apparent that this was not a glitch; more like the part of a 1970s Pink Floyd concert where the light show kicked in, flickering colors and instant vertigo as the stadium went dark, and then light, dark and then light, bathing the spectators in a phantasmagoria of special effects. All they needed was a bunch of cigarette lighters to hold aloft during a signature Floyd song.

Right about now, the Bulldogs were anything but “Comfortably Numb.” For his part, Abrego was “Money” in the end zone, perhaps he was humming “Wish You Were Here.” Bobcats up 23-18, but there was more to come from football 2023, or, please to forgive, “Us and Them.”

The final stages of the night yielded to a more experienced ball club, as McAllen recovered from the pyrotechnics and the heroics of numerous Bobcats to take the tape, by 16. One Edinburg drive – after the Mac reassumed the lead at 26-23 – ended with another fumble, as the fourth began, and from there the Bulldogs pulled away. But in essence, the night was positive in so many ways for a program seeking to rebuild after the loss of 35 seniors. EHS competed.

Santa Maria went 10 for 16 through the air for 165 yards, and if he can duplicate this sound performance in the coming weeks, the ‘Cats will be well served. He and Vega showed a connection out there, and one expects that combo to work for many more gainers down the line. Though the defense wore down toward the close trying to contain the handful of fine athletes the ‘Dogs brought to town, it put together a gritty performance. Safety Woodrow Villarreal was all over the field making tackles, seven in the first half, before getting dinged up and sitting out the final 20 minutes. Gonzalez played like a senior will, and his interception was an absolute thing of beauty. Along with Torres (eight tackles) and the active play of ends Hernandez and Aranda, sophomore linebacker Mario Cavazos proved his mettle with a team-high 11 stops. In the second half, junior linebacker Albert Gamez was on point, getting to the football and laying some licks on his way to seven tackles.

So Guzman was buoyant if slightly dejected after the final whistle, his kids same. Their faces showed the strain of playing 48 minutes of football (more conditioning to come) but they were not down. Instead, they, as the coach suggested, were angry. Angry because they knew that that they’d been in this one most of the way, having proven that despite this or that prediction, regardless of whatever social media bleating might have been filling the ether in the run-up, they had come to fight, and fight they did.

Of course, as the old cliché goes, it doesn’t get any easier. EHS now prepares for another Thursday, against high-flying Vela, and no one needs to do any propaganda or consciousness-raising. Everybody knows. It’s Vela. And EHS. Always ripe for some proper antagonism.

As the Rivalry encounter nears, the ‘Cats will tuck away this more than credible effort, iron out some of the wrinkles that need it, and advance on to war. They’re planning on testing out the light show at Flores a few more times before the season gets too long in the tooth. And if the opener is any indication, it might be that Guzman and the Bobcats could be bathed in the intermittent glare of special effects more often than not in 2023.

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