September 7, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game gallery
Stereotypes are powerful, as we know, because once people figure out what they think about something – decide what they “know” – it’s exceedingly difficult to disabuse them of their notions: hard to change their minds. Preconceived notions die hard.
So Weslaco East came to town Thursday to play Vela, and one team passed for more than 200 yards, the other connected on just one throw for seven yards. Since the world was young, the Wildcats have been the program of potent running backs, from Andrew Alvarado to Bobby Gonzalez and Aaron Munguia, not to mention Joshua Roy Pedraza, who torched Vela for a 330-yard night back in bi-district 2016. Meanwhile, Vela has been seen as replete with glamour guys, high-octane passers such as Fabian Pedraza, Nate Garcia, and A.J. Sotelo, among others, all of whom having filled the air frequently, favorably with footballs. Awesome bevy of receivers, names we all know.
So stereotypes are in a way a decent read on the surface contours of a situation. But they are always potentially prone to being upset, and Thursday was a prime example of such.
Using bursts of passing excellence from rangy and mobile quarterback Alex Martinez, the usually earthbound Wildcats took to the sky with unusual satisfaction and used their new offensive personality to hang right with the SaberCats, tying a wild affair at 35 with less than three minutes to go.
Vela, meanwhile, tossed just one completion all night but it didn’t matter.
Because Jamal Polley.
With three long-range detonations and three other touchdown runs, the senior glider entered the pantheon of great Vela backs with a performance for all time. Polley exploded consistently behind the fine Vela line, dipping and darting, accelerating and cutting on his way to 327 yards, the third best single-game rushing effort in program history. Saving the best for last, Polley took off once again to the house, 72 yards for six, on the second snap after East had knotted a back-and forth thriller. The devastating cannon shot at 1:58 of the end enabled the Sabes (3-0) to cap a 42-35 decision, but only after an ensuing defensive stand turned the Wildcats away in the closing ticks.
Toward the end, it almost looked like a reprise of that 2016 playoff game, when Vela scored late only to have East come roaring back for a field goal at the buzzer to complete a 31-28 shocker of an upset. In 2023, the Wildcats (1-2) were unbowed all night and gave the Blue and Black all they wanted, the former looking as if they might eke out another victory on the road.
Vela rumbled for 385 rushing yards and East countered with 143, 202 (eek!) passing. But at the wire, Polley went nuclear, racing down the right sideline from the Vela 28 and leaving everyone behind as he sailed through the night headed for destiny.
Now. The Sabes’ standout back has grown up on the tales of the unparalleled Robert Guerra, he of the nine touchdowns in a game, and a career high of 360 yards, set against Victoria East in the opener of 2016. The year before, the mercurial Guerra had posted 1,738 yards, which still stands as the one-year record for Vela. Then there was P.J. Rivera, the versatile tough guy who established the school mark for yards in a game with a monumental 386 in the area round over SA Taft in 2021. Polley knows these exploits well and after his scintillating performance Thursday, noted that.
“I’ve seen the videos on Robert, and I have seen P.J. run,” said the affable and soft-spoken Polley. “They were both really great runners, and I have tried to play like them, definitely, to do as well as they did … maybe better.”
Vela’s shining star smiled shyly as he said this, signaling a perfect combination of reverence and awe for the former greats leavened with a healthy ambition to try and become part of the conversation: Who is the best Vela runner ever?
With exquisite vision and unreal patience like Guerra, and the tendency to come up with clutch home runs when they are most needed, like Rivera, Polley is now, irrevocably, in that conversation. If the Sabes could play East every week, he might become the greatest of all time, having now levitated for 762 yards in three games versus the Wildcats. He Hate Me.
Which brings us back to stereotypes, habits of mind.
Last season Polley had two cracks at East, getting 153 in the regular season matchup between the two – won by Vela, 54-7 – and then gunning it for 282 in the playoff victory of 49-3. In those two ball games, the Sabes threw a total of 16 passes. The common conception of Vela as an aerial show has gradually been supplanted by a run-first mentality that preternaturally wise Coach John Campbell has always favored, especially in preps for the postseason. And the program just keeps on winning. Conversely, the rugged Wildcats, who’ve made six three-deep playoff runs in their history, winning 59 percent of their lifetime games, have usually done it with Ground and Pound. Thursday’s set-to, besides offering one of the better shows of entertainment in some time, gave the lie to all the things we thought we might have known.
And that is why we love the game.
TOUGH TEST AHEAD
East came in at 1-1, following a dispiriting lid-lifter loss at Los Fresnos with a narrow triumph over P-SJ-A last week. The Sabes had beaten Edinburg North decisively but then struggled with city rival EHS last week, posting a 45-24 win despite having seen themselves tied up at 24 with the frisky Bobcats, in the third period. One of the reasons that Vela has leaned in hard on Polley in the early stretches of the campaign is because quarterback Myles Lopez has been hindered by injury. This was always going to be a test, and a stern one, given the circumstances, and the smart money was on East, behind the veteran coach Mike Burget, to provide a stiff examination.
Campbell was intent on getting some answers for several questions the coaches have been asking since the season began, including a read on how the relatively unlettered defense, littered with new or slightly new faces, would fare against a perennially tough customer. At the end of Thursday’s festival of highs and lows, he and his staff have got plenty of progress to plot and plan for.
Every time the Sabes started to pull away, there came the Wildcats, whipping back into range. This push and pull began with a 75-yard Sabe drive on the opening possession, culminating in a 12-yard Polley pop for a 7-0 lead. However, East took the ball on its own extended excursion, taking 13 plays in methodical fashion, converting two third-down snaps, and leveling the score at 7-7 late in the first. A pair of penalties on Vela, for offside, aided the effort, a march that included just one pass. That would change.
Starting from their own 32, the Sabes needed just one fantastic moment, as Polley zoomed through the defense down the left sideline for a 68-yard bombshell as the quarter expired, reaching 99 yards total after just 12 minutes of play.
To counter, East started showing the bootleg action with Martinez, slinky and elusive, looking like a young Albert Chavez (Mercedes) or Erick Nino (Edcouch-Elsa), a couple of Mid-Valley studs who graced the Valley gridiron with greatness back in the mid-2000s. Martinez raced out of trouble behind the line, leftward, to loop a beautiful ball right over two Vela defenders. It was gathered in on the run by the East receiver and from the Vela 42, at 9:37 of the second, it was tied again at 14. See the pattern shift.
After the teams exchanged punts, Vela’s defensive charge led by the tiny titan, Robert Cantu (10 tackles, always around the ball), the time had come for another patented Polley plot.
One play after the East punt, No. 1 was gone, steaming 69 yards to the house for a 21-14 advantage at 6:38. It wasn’t just the yardage total on Thursday. It was timing, as Polley seemed to sense when it had to happen – a big gainer – and then go to work to accomplish the feat. Which he did. Every time.
Some people had suggested that the born-on date for East might be nearing a problem, as the Wildcats had missed the playoffs in 2021 and gone just 6-5 in 2022, with the aforementioned blowout loss to Vela in round one of the postseason. But never underestimate the pesky ‘Cats, who always play with an edge, an attitude mirroring the vein of their burly and combative leader, Burget. And so here they came. They thought.
It was Anthony Moreno who took the stage now, grabbing an interception off the arm of Martinez, with 3:02 left in the half. From the ‘Cat 35, it took Vela three plays to increase its lead to 14 on a Polley cruise of 18 yards.
But to illustrate that they were here to scrap, the Wildcats answered with four super passes/catches all over the field, as Vela scrambled to get pressure on the QB (intermittent at best Thursday) and cover downfield. East moved steadily down the green, the last of the four throws resulting in six. Though Vela then used its two-minute (running) offense to motor into position, moving from its 40 to the East 26 as the break loomed, a field goal try misfired.
Having gained 285 yards in the half, for 28 points, the Sabes nonetheless found themselves feeling like the stars of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the classic film of 1969. Robert Redford and Paul Newman, free spirits (and bank robbers) who find themselves breathlessly pursued by a vengeful posse on a wild and relentless chase through Bolivia, ask themselves, multiple times: “Who are those guys?”
Eventually, our movie heroes, dogged by an enemy that just would not quit, solved the matter by jumping off a cliff.
WOULD THEY QUIT?
Expecting the visitor to fall off the pace, and perhaps the competitive cliff, the Sabes were sorely disappointed at how the third period commenced. Burget switched it up entirely, keeping his quarter in the backfield and powering the running game up. The drive was aided by uncharacteristic trouble by Vela in kick cover, and from the Sabe 49 after a fine runback, the foe was in after eight plays to re-tie this slugfest, 28-28 at 9:47. Vela has plugged in new kids to replace several departed starters on D, and through the first three games of 2023, the question has been, how well will certain reassembled units perform? Answers to come in the by and by.
Now faced with a real challenge, the Blue and Black went back to the rockpile, benefiting from a pass interference penalty on East (third-and-six play) and getting some no-doubt running by bruising senior Cyrus Golat, eventually finding the end zone courtesy of Polley at 6:41. Being a defensive coordinator on Thursday was surely a challenge as well.
However, defense was the crux of the next turning point, as Vela’s Daniel Duberney grabbed the cheers with a spirited sack of Martinez. However Part 2, Vela could not move the football, punting back to East. However Part 3, the punt was a mammoth thing of beauty off the leg of senior Bernabe Gonzalez, spiraling high and higher, whistling out of bounds to end a 49-yard journey at the Wildcat 4. A properly prodigious punt.
Showing something they have to work on further in the coming weeks, though, the Sabes let East out of jail, surrendering a crisp 14-yard run, and from there the Wildcats came on, reaching midfield or thereabouts before a wobble almost cratered the night. Successive negative-yard tries were followed by a miserable punt snap that never caught air, and 24 yards later (the other way), the Sabes were in business at the enemy 17.
Here was the moment, the knockout punch on the way, as Vela has done so many times in the past. Field position, special teams, quick scores and out go the lights; everyone knows the drill. Only thing is, East has certainly not imagined that its dynasty of sorts is over and done with, despite some middling records the past few moons. The ‘Cats gutted it up, Vela bogged down, and a field goal try went wide right as the fourth period began, leaving the score at 35-28, Good Guys. And … who are those guys on the other side. They not quittin’ at all.
East yearned to take command now and advanced once again to midfield, running it mainly after the passing fancy of the second period. But an enormous tackle for loss from imposing sophomore defensive lineman Gerardo Carr might have been the key to the evening, as possession soon turned and the Sabes had it back, up 7. Alas, a ricochet carom off a Vela receiver ended up in the arms of a Wildcat defender, with five minutes to go. Five plays, 21 yards, East tied the encounter at 35 with 2:32 remaining. These two had played four times before Thursday and back in 2019, the ‘Cats clipped Vela, 38-35, in overtime. Was this going to happen again? Possible, some might say probable. Ponder.
It just seemed too much to ask for, yet another field-long jaunt from the indefatigable warrior in blue. And yet not, as Vela’s bell cow took off to the house once more, this time for 72 yards, leaving fatigued and depressed Wildcats grabbing at air and panting for some, too, and at 1:58, it was 42-35. It wasn’t that East tackled poorly, or made mistakes of other sorts, really. It was just about the Vela line – junior tackle Ronnie Ramirez was incredible with an edge block to spring Polley free on one of the first-half TD’s. Polley noted afterward that he takes what the formidable protectors up front give him, meaning holes to hit, gaps in the defense. And the holes were there Thursday.
About Polley himself: his instincts and quickness are well chronicled, his cutting and jukes also already approaching legendary. You just don’t see it all that often, a guy making a masterful move or two, making them miss, and being suddenly free to roam about the country, practically untouched. Reminds one of Robert in his prime, though Polley could be classified as a bit more north-south; Robert used to float, as if in a dream sequence, and right when you thought he was meat, dude would freakin’ disappear, rematerializing downfield somewhere, defenders flummoxed and frustrated … we had him, bro! Bro … no.
Polley has now passed P.J. in career rushing yards, with 2,329 so far, and far ahead on the railroad tracks of highest standards lies the total of 3,534 which Guerra achieved during his illustrious and at times truncated run as The Man. Math homework this season. Polley has averaged 116 yards per game at Vela in 20 contests. If the Saves can crash their way three-deep into the bracket, that average should get Polley super close to a magical rushing record. Such talk is obviously, drastically premature, but for the statheads out there, it just always comes down to numbers in a way.
But hey, the game isn’t over yet. Focus, he tells himself.
All the fabulous moments aside, it would now take a last little something to tuck away the W, because East, well, those guys just kept on keepin’ on.
On the final drive of a crazy night, it took defensive gems from athletic corner Jarion Cruz (he was a difference-maker in this one) and Moreno, along with a hard lick on a runner by sophomore LB Orlando Cano, to stem the tide. When Duberney provided a tackle for loss to end the series, the game was won, Lopez taking the knee on the final snap to send the Sabes to 3-0 heading into next week’s road clash against McAllen Memorial, another tricky foe of some note that the Sabes have battled in the past. The district opener, to boot.
Memorial will be tough enough, but what comes next would make Butch and Sundance shake their heads, wearily regroup, and head for the final showdown, knowing full well who those guys are.
They’re the Raiders and they’re the best team in the Valley. No question.
Some folks have scoffed lightly at the fact that Pharr North is currently ranked in the state’s top 10, Class 5A, others are ecstatic. But some things are for sure. One, Vela is still a work in progress, and must have a healthy QB in order to have a shot to compete with North. Two, there are pieces in place on defense that look like they’ll work out nicely. More are needed, and directly. And three, the Raiders, with ample reason, think they own the trophy; it’s a deep and experienced club that has withstood an injury or two this campaign without issue, a team that is every bit as confident as Vela has generally been, especially in the Campbell Era of excellence.
You thought last year was extraordinary, over at P-SJ-A Stadium? Truth. But this season’s collision on the mountaintop – Sept. 22 at the Stadium – might be even more superb, that is, if some ducks fall into place on the Vela row in the coming days. Work to do. Fair enough.
For now, it’s Memorial-Vela, next week. Memorial, home of the greatest backs, like Weslaco East. Bradley, “The Kid” Speights and his brother, Cam, three of the kings of RGV football, no question. And yet, Vela, with its pantheon of historic figures, the newest of them rocketing through 2023 like a comet, will be ready to show its wares against the Mustangs, its scheme tweaks and wrinkles, in preparations for the rematch against the Raiders that SaberCat Nation has been waiting for, for … oh, let’s say it, a whole year!