August 24, 2023

By Greg Selber

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Don’t do it. Repeat: do not do it.

Give away field position to Vela early in the game, and hard times surely await your football team. For about 10 seasons now, the SaberCats have been masters at tilting the field in their favor, grabbing momentum with special teams play, forcing the opponent to work from the shadow of their own end zone, scoring TDs from close range in bunches, and burying the foe in the process.

This, among other factors, explains how the Sabes opened up their 2023 season Friday at Richard R. Flores Stadium. The 62-14 blowout victory marked the eighth straight time Vela has clobbered the Cougars, by an average of 50.9 points to 12.8. And it marked a common program trend for the Blue and Black. Pressure early, force the other side onto the defensive, and pounce. Hard.

Par for the dominant course, and the numbers tell it: 64, 27, 50, 21.

These are the yards that Vela had to gain on its first four drives Friday against North. Three possessions starting at midfield or better, two dangerously near the Red Zone, and it’s all about field position, as the “visitor” won the war of positioning Friday and took advantage, series by series. The Coogs, last year’s league champs in 31-6A, fell into the trap almost from the outset Friday, operating perilously near their own end zone time after time. Numbers: 17, 9, 2, 19, corresponding to the yard-lines on which the Old Gold began their first four tries. Night and Day.

Vela, looking to duplicate and then exceed its mark of 10-2 in 2022, cashed in several breaks based on geography, and short-field breezed to an easy win before a sizeable crowd at the Stadium.

Rolling to nearly 600 yards of offense, the Sabes overcame three turnovers to post a surprisingly simple night, after some folks had been bold enough to suggest (or hope) that North could finally put an end to the Vela winning streak in town, which nonetheless reached 22 after the match was complete. Someone, some time, is going to do it, went the reasoning.

But not this time, bro. Sprinting to three running scores and adding a 58-yard TD bomb from Myles Lopez to Jaxson Shupe, at 5:16 of the second period, the Sabes raced out to a 27-0 advantage. When the Coogs (228 yards total) rallied to score in the second and cut the margin to 13 with a Uli Melendez blast midway through the third, Vela just got back to the business, ending the night with five straight six-point efforts to triumph, going away. The Sabes came within a point of matching their best showing against the Coogs, 63 back in 2021, and announced loudly that next week, EHS had better be locked in.

Another day at the office for a program that has always been front and center in controlling the field and proceeding accordingly. At their best, the Sabes own the field position game with their speed and quickness, gang tackling, and ability to seem to be advancing in waves. Quick scores and momentum, demoralizing. In these torrid stretches it tends to look like Vela is at your 20, every snap. Didn’t we just have the ball … wait what? How are they right there, on the doorstep, again? Maddening. And this is how Friday unfolded. AT IT AGAIN

The Cougars, a fine 8-3 a year ago, ran out fast as the night began, getting two first downs and clipping to near midfield behind sophomore quarterback Tyler Ruiz, but very quickly would find very little space to operate. Linebacker Robert Cantu made a pair of hits to help force a punt, and Vela glided downfield on a 7-play, 64-yard drive as senior A.J. Reyes (breakout alert) hauled in two passes from Lopez and Cyrus Golat bowling-balled his way to a 25-yard score at 5:32 of the first. The extra-point failed, which is something to say because Vela’s kicking specialists have generally been among the Valley’s best, its cover teams as well. Like Harlingen in the oldish days, this team thrives on special teams, good for at least a touchdown, sometimes more, on any given night, with gobs of blocked or rushed kicks and again, territorial control. Fast and aggressive.

The latest iteration of the pattern happened soon after as North was hemmed in at the 9 following the kickoff and dug in to face a soon to be swarming SaberCat defense. In the shadow of its own goal, Coach Damian Gonzalez’ offense could not find a way through and after a punt was nearly blocked – you don’t have to block it to make it poor – Vela was licking collective chops, setting up shop at the Coog 27.

At this point it looked bleak for the Old Gold but Horacio Lopez played the hero role to a tee, leaping into the air near the end zone to snag an interception against the formidable Shupe at 3:57. Good news, but not so good was that the ball was now spotted at the North 2. Better than a punt, really. So again, North had no room behind, 11 salivating Sabes in front. A personal foul on Vela helped matters somewhat, but when the Coogs came up a yard short of moving the sticks, they had to kick again.

Starting at the 50 now, Coach John Campbell’s unit went through the gears, starting with a 13-yard pass to the elusive baseball infielder Reyes, whose speed and hands might make him the target par excellence for junior Lopez, who was very sharp at times and would end the half with 171 yards on a 10-of-16 performance. After a quick jet from senior Jamal Polley (155 of the team’s 343 rushing yards Friday), Reyes took a handoff and scooted in from the 7 at 1:40 of the quarter. Look up, and you’re behind two scores, carramba.

When a team faces the patented Vela onslaught, the unfortunate tendency is often to rush it, to press, possibly start making mistakes in the attempt to stop the bleeding, finding nothing but disaster. This is how it went down, as next, defenders Aleksander Sotelo and Nicholas Guevara went to town, the former forcing a fumble and the latter grabbing it at 0:50 of the interminable first quarter. Field position, 21-yard line, and five plays later, it was 20-zip, Dimas De Leon piling in from the 2 at 10:54. De Leon and Reyes each took a turn in the Wildcat during the night, and once or twice, Lopez himself was out wide in the formation, his 6-1 frame making him look like a college receiver against the much shorter North corners.

But here, North benefited from a weakness for Vela in the opener, a propensity toward penalty infractions, to the discordant tune of 80 yards. On the drive after De Leon’s six, the Sabes committed a 15-yard boo-boo on a third-and-12, nullifying a sack from Sotelo and Guevara. It took three plays for Vela to force another punt, with Vela’s Marquez Fuentes, a junior who was making noise in the half, ranging over to pop a receiver in the right flat for a measly 1-yard gain.

This time RVHS had some ground to make up, starting affairs at its own 22. But when the Sabes are vibing, it’s all gravy, baby.

The strapping Lopez fired two completes but down the road faced a third and 12 from the 42. The pass went sailing happily into the air, and Shupe, who like Lopez has the physical attributes of a cat destined for the next level, roared down the green like he was pacing the 200 meters, striding into the catch, shaking off a defender with contempt at the 15, and completing a 58-yard touchdown at 5:16 of the second. Bang! Dang!

No one wanted to admit it, but just then, it sorta smelled like over.
Not so fast, however, as Melendez (15 totes for 88 yards, team had just 121 of the latter) crashed through for a 24-yard pickup and Ruiz found Armani Acevedo (a rival of Vela’s Reyes on the diamond) for a first down. From the Vela 40, Ruiz then wound up and aired one out to rangy Kiandre Estrada, who was comfortably free down the right-hand seam and handled the toss on his way to a 40-yard scoring play. After a trying evening of defiance in the face of Vela’s expertise, the North crowd (it matched or perhaps exceeded in number the throng of SaberCat supporters sweating in the August sun on the other side) had something to howl about!

The roar kept percolating as Lopez once again stepped in to intercept a Vela pass, stopping a drive by the New Cats that had punctured the North 40. Lifted by a few promising moments at the close of the half, North went inside to regroup and see if it could cut into the 20-point deficit. MAYBE SO
This the Coogs were able to do, starting with a stand that turned a 9-play Vela drive into a punt, as the defensive line started to get some reach and linebacker Isaiah Rico came to the fore. Though North could not advance the ball, it got a much-needed break next, as Vela fumbled the punt and safety Oscar Villarreal (perhaps the top North performer on D, with eight stops) found the gift at the enemy 48. The Coogs then set about unwrapping, Melendez popping for 13 yards.

Now, a glimpse of what the near future may hold for Gonzalez and his club. Wide left was Richard Molina, a tall and as it turns out, pretty fast kid. Ruiz whipped a BB out there and Molina forced through his tackler as he sped up, screaming down the left sideline to the pilon. Just short on the 28-yard flash of skill, Melendez then powering in from the 1 to make it 27-13 at 5:33. For much of the night, the North passing game had little space, the Vela defense motoring around, covering all the zones, and coming up to close openings in a hurry. But Ruiz got it up and out, fast and accurately, Molina did the rest.
Now it started to look like the competitive Rivalry Game some people had predicted, the Coogs surging with confidence and the Sabes seeking to clean it up a bit, after three turnovers in less than three periods.

Lopez started it with a third-and-12 ball to Polley, who made the sticks, but then a personal foul against the Sabes seemed to gum up the works. That is, until a fabulous play call sent action right, only to have the runner flip the ball up to Reyes, who had worked his way back left, against the grain. The first thing they tell you in middle school, if you’re an end on defense, is … stay at home. Always think, as you pursue from the back side, that a reverse may be coming. Problem is, if it doesn’t come, and doesn’t come, kids will start to fire out, chasing the play, and eventually, well, it does come.

Reyes was a puff of smoke now, making a move or two on his way down the left sideline, 78 yards for the breathtaking touchdown that broke the camel’s back at 3:54 of the third.

Faced with this distressing twist in the narrative tale, the Coogs settled in to try and stage a resurrection. But a delay-of-game penalty and a tackle for loss from athletic corner Jarion Cruz of Vela ensued, and when the playmaker Sotelo followed with another TFL, North kicked away.

The next three snaps by the Blue and Black would yield two lightning strikes from Polley, leading to a 48-14 advantage early in the fourth. The program has had its share of outstanding running backs, including obviously the unparalleled Robert Guerra and the slashing flair of P.J. Rivera. Polley, who has the package intact with speed, strength, and agility, is definitely in the conversation now, after a 1,400-yard junior season and a great start to 2023: eye-blink TDs of 38 and 69 steps in the series of snaps just parsed.

Oddly, his finest moment – low-key – might have come on an innocent enough 2-yard gain earlier in the night. Upon getting the handoff, the sleek senior saw nothing but enemies in his face. His judgment was sublime. Polley waited just a fraction, stopping before the hole that wasn’t close to a hole, and then, all cool, leaned forward at an angle to sneak into a seam the size of a keyhole. He ended up just two yards past the previous line of scrimmage, but it should have been minus-4. You either have it, or you don’t, that cutting ability, instinctive decision-making, real time. Most don’t. Polley does.

After three quarters the drudgery set in, the decision tucked away, the No. 2’s happy as clams, getting their reps and trying to impress. Vela would hold North to just 57 total yards in the second half, capping the scoring with a late 65-yard toss from Bernabe Gonzalez to track man Jacob Medina, with 1:33 left to go. Two schools of thought here. Bottom line, if you’re a backup and you get to see the field, doesn’t matter, down or distance, time on the clock. You just want to play, man! Coaches want to see what their 2’s can do.

North, of course, will interpret the last-minute aerial in an entirely different vein. And this is what makes the Rivalry Games different, better, more weighty, and thus, eminently enjoyable. POSTSCRIPT WEEK ONE

Clearing up some details. Shupe, who caught five for 96, was tremendous in downfield blocking against North, twice pushing his man totally off the field of play as the Sabes cruised out wide. He will surely get a shot, if all unfolds as it should, to play college football somewhere … UTRGV, 2025, hey, what if? Let’s go!!

In the Potent Polley and the complementary pair of Dancing De Leon and Galloping Golat, this roster has the backs and a well-built and now seasoned line that dominated the line of scrimmage. Lopez looks the Real Deal as expected and the addition of Reyes might be the X Factor going forward. He was so effective in the opener!

The defense is, as always, a group with wheels, anchored by Sotelo up front, a guy who will get there and make something happen. Proven commodity. The linebacking crew is developing and several Sabes had solid showings there.
Keep an eye on Derek (!) Rodriguez, who has switched from No. 25 to No. 7 now, a clear signal that the athletic junior is intent on trying to match exploits with the super players that have sported the lucky digit in the past. Everyone recalls the highlight machine that was Justin Navarro, and some might even go back to the old days of the Vela charge, when Nick Enriquez, the undeniable heat-seeking missile, compiled an even 200 tackles in his memorable junior season of 2016, many of them of the KO variety. Rodriguez can remind one of Enriquez or of the headhunter Taylor Clough (still rhymes with “pow!”) though the latter was a 6 instead of a 7, research says. Popped people all night.

For North, what can be said, except that the Cougars could not stem the early field position wave that eventually engulfed them. They went down for the count but there were harbingers of what happy things are to come. As the offense tossed a few passes to Melendez and the tight ends, it showed versatility and gave its agile sophomore QB a chance to make some basic throws and get into rhythm. Expect more of the same next week at home against Brownsville Rivera, a struggling program that actually did start with a bang Friday, beating the crud out of La Joya, 40-3. Now that’s a score … La Joya, one of the competitors in North’s league. Another striking point from Week One: all six 31-6A teams went down to defeat including Econ, short end of a 30-16 score Friday at Donna North.

On offense the Coogs found themselves in against a mad fast defense on Friday, with a retooled offensive line learning as the night unfolded. When Melendez did not carry, North gave some looks to the backups and they appear to be coming on gradually. For the defense, Angel Rodriguez was active in the secondary along with the opportunistic Lopez and the aforementioned Villarreal. Eliazar Cardenas had stretches of physical prowess from his LB spot and the bulky trenchers up front had their moments, particularly in the second half.

The truth is, it’s hard to get a real read on how good the Coogs may eventually be in 2023. This was an uphill struggle all the way, against a program that is, well, it is what it is. The future starts now for the Coogs, and one suggests that Gonzalez, with a week to sort through the film and start back to work, will have the Old Gold plenty ready and plenty miffed when the Raiders come to town on Friday.

Vela on the other hand will want to secure its next bout, Thursday at home against … ha, You Know!

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