ROMP WITH GRULLA’S GUTTY GATORS
BY GREG SELBER
RIO GRANDE CITY – How does one define the elusive concept of a high school football superstar? The Observer has always believed that the following elements are a necessity and if they be fulfilled, you got yourself a folk hero:
1 He is far and away the best player on the field
2 He does things that defy belief, time and time again, usually making them look easy
3 Even plays on which he does not succeed take on highlight-reel proportions
4 All eyes are on him, every snap, including – grudgingly – those of the other team and its fans
5 He leaves them all wanting more (except for opposing defenders and their coordinator)
OK, that is quite a list.
St. Joseph Academy junior quarterback Kai Money checked all the magic boxes here Friday night, and has been doing it with aplomb since he took the helm as a freshman. Now, using the age-old syllogism of Socrates: if a superstar is someone who fulfills all the elements, and Kai Money consistently fulfills, with gusto, all the elements, then … Kai Money is a superstar.
It’s that simple, people, No. 12 of the Bloodhounds is the best player in the Valley right now, although some will say that over in Edinburg, there’s a cat who just set the Valley record with nine touchdowns in a single game. And they would be right to employ our equation in support of Robert Guerra.
One superstar at a time, please.
WHAT A START!
The game was a track meet, with Money’s Bloodhound Gang engaging in a breathless shootout with the hometown Grulla Gators. The 2016 opener for both squads went back and forth and before it was done, the teams had combined for 1,025 yards and 99 points. St. Joe carved out 585 and 64 of that with Coach Tino Villarreal’s high-octane, quick-tempo attack he has fashioned after the electric orchestra of the Oregon Ducks. The Gators countered with 450 yards and 35 points, which on any normal night would be enough to make a victory a solid bet. Not this night, however, as Money engineered a smashing debut, rushing for 189 yards and three touchdowns, and passing 16 for 26, gaining 174 yards and three more sixes.
Those are numbers, and they are excellent. But it’s the way he did it that was fantastic. Twisting, juking, evading the rush and instantly either finding the open man or being that man himself on the run, the junior dominated the proceedings against a Grulla defense that has some head-hunters and probably – actually – won the battle upfront against a potentially fine St. Joe line that had its issues at times Friday.
But every time the Gators drew a bead on No. 12, he got away, slipping some tackles, breaking some, and showing absurd acceleration and rubber ankles that seemed to bend halfway and back; Money is a magician who appears and then vanishes, well ahead of the pack. He’s quick, man, quick!
St. Joe rushed (literally) out to a 14-0 lead with two drives that were studies in pace, and also in conditioning. Villarreal is known as a harsh yet encouraging taskmaster when it comes to running and agility drills, because he wants his offense to run up to the line, run the play, and run the table on defenses scrambling to keep up, snap after snap.
Money finished off the first drive with a 9-yard scoot, and went 3 for 3 in the air on the next series, leading the team 94 yards in 13 plays; he ran 9 and 15 yards to juice the march and strapping running back Mario Garcia (6-1, 190 and runs a sub-50 quarter) pounded in from the 1 at 1:15 of the first.
And that’s the thing. Yes, Kai is a folk hero with all the tools, but this team is way more than just that. Garcia has the chance to be a 1,000-yard back once he perfects the art of north-south pounding. Veteran receiver Bernie de la Garza is a superb route-runner who has a knack for being where he needs to be. Friday he gathered in eight balls for 103 yards; he and Money are old mates and when the latter starts to dance and dart in the backfield, he knows that when he comes free and gets set to fire with what could be called an excellent arm, de la Garza will have come back to the ball, or crossed the route to the open spot, and that he will not miss the catch, promise.
Those two are a ballet, and one of the team’s two transfers, Gunnar Henderson, is going to join the repertoire right about now. The former McAllen Bulldog snared four passes against Grulla, one for a score, and he should increase those totals by the week.
Alright, so let it be said that the St. Joe offense is a tornado waiting to smash every house in sight. But the Gators have their own outstanding offensive players, starting with senior Fabian Anzaldua, a strong-legged veteran who has been the Grulla go-to Gator for three years. All he would do at home Friday was rumble for 218 yards, pass for 115 more, and do his best to keep the Starr County side in the match. Once they fell down by two TDs, the Gators turned to Anzaldua, who steamed 68 yards down the left sideline as the gun (OK, the horn, back in the day it was a gun) sounded to end the first period.
HUMAN AT LAST
To begin the second, Money made one of his only obvious mistakes of the game, although being the modest sort that he is, he would later tick off a number of things he was not satisfied with concerning his own performance. Did we mention that he is a National Honor Society scholar? Enough. Onward. His interception to Jay Solis, who was great for the Gators with 10 tackles, set up a comeback, as the Gators then chomped their way to the tie. Youngster Dillen Salinas, a good-looking prospect to say the least, caught a 36-yard bomb from Anzaldua (7 of 18 but some key tosses) and later, the senior passer found a friend in the end zone with a 16-yarder at 10:45. The Grulla line jumped offside five times, the ‘Hounds four, and that’s what you get in Week One, generally.
Challenged well, St. Joe got the carnival going again with a 9-play, 51-yard march, Money throwing two completions and dipping in from the 6 to make it 21-14, visitor. Then, Grulla fell down on the job and was forced to punt. Bad idea.
From there the Gators would run just seven more plays the entire quarter as the Bloodhounds rattled off two scores to assume a commanding 35-14 advantage at the much-needed break. They averaged 50 ppg during the 8-3 season of 2015, did the ‘Hounds, and upped that by two scores in the ’16 lid-lifter. After a toss to Henderson for six, Money and Co. got a freebie when a punt snap went over the head of the Gator booter, Salinas. Though he made a valiant effort to recover, the ball went over to St. Joe at the Gator 27. Kai kicked it for 21 and then fired a worthy TD bullet to de la Garza at 0:38, and there is the Key Juncture of the night. If Grulla kicks away and manages to hold the ‘Hounds out, they go in down 14, not 21. At that point, it just seemed that nothing was going to stop St. Joe.
During the half, the Bloodhound signal caller had illustrated perfect judgment on the option, pulling or pitching with expert, split-second reads. He’d disappeared at least three times, leaving the Grulla rush grasping at air, and he had shown the ability to explode from impossible angles to run through tackles. The only hiccup was the INT, and of course the time the PA announcer at Joe R. Sanchez called him “Phillip.”
Now Phillip Money, for those who do not know, was a standout QB for the Edinburg Bobcats of yore, a superb athlete at 6-2, 200, a superb QB who was great enough to be a Division I scholarship guy. He is on the staff at St. Joe, helping Villarreal with odds, ends, and Kai, and he is still a rock of a physical specimen. All we can say is, with the way Kai has worked in the past two years on weights and conditioning – right now he’s a generous 5-11 and maybe 165 – he should be able to catch the genetic wave soon and take on the Man Growth that is his birthright. Offseason, he wowed the scouts at a camp up at Georgetown with his speed and arm strength, and colleges are now as we speak, unofficially, of course, inquiring. The only thing young Kai will have a problem with is growing his hair as long and cool as his dad’s. Matthew McConaughey meets Jimmy Morton meets David Gilpin, there.
Back to the game and the many thrills and chills to come on a wild night out west. The drive to Rio is always on the interesting side, what with the relics, treasures and ruins, the copious amount of State Troopers, and for Pete’s sake, take 755 next time, damn.
But it was worth it, to see Anzaldua and a number of other tremendous Gators. Salinas is a star in the making and this team should be a contender for the title in its 4A league: the La Feria game has a red circle around it, because it’s going to be a slobber-knocker Nov. 4 at Lion Country. Aaron Mendez is a tough customer on defense and he showed it, leading the team with 12 tackles. Solis was all over the field for Coach Abel Gonzalez’ group.
But once the Gators blinked, it was going to be tough to come back. It got even tougher when ‘Hound Alejandro Balderas, a mean little rock who made seven hits Friday, came up with an interception. The corner has started out in good shape for the 2016 Albert Preciado award; we refer to last year’s Economedes atomic bomber who was the team’s best hitter though weighing in at 135 pounds. Maybe.
It took scant minutes before the ‘Hounds took advantage, Money squirting and cracking his way 26 yards to the much-visited house; this occurred at 7:32 to make it 42-21, and though the crowd at Sanchez was much dismayed, its members were also murmuring to themselves repeatedly about that No. 12. Check the list.
Still, the home side was going to get more action, as Salinas launched his way to a 55-yard score right up the gut of a St. Joe defense that is not where Villarreal plans for it to be soon.
“We cannot be that team this year,” he stressed after the game. “We can’t just trade touchdowns with teams, we did that last year and it got us 8-3, but one and done. We will work hard to get better on defense and I think we can do it. We need to be able to close down games, stop some people, not just outscore them.”
Now the ‘Hounds bandied back with a strong 40-yard run from Garcia, who stepped off 163 yards on the night, the team amassing 411 all told. The best part about the drive, besides the 9-yard pass that ended it, was the finery from kicker Jose Kavachi, who scooped in a short pass after a bad snap and waltzed in to paydirt for a 50-21 lead at 5:26 of the third. By the way, that guy has a howitzer where his right leg should be, sailing five touchbacks into the breeze; in practice he’s converted a 57-yard field goal, has Karachi.
The measure of the night was as it had early been, the teams dueling back and forth in a parade more resembling a 7-on-7 fling than old-fashioned, Old People Football. The highlight was Anzaldua’s second mad dash to glory, covering 75 yards with the senior whistling through the night with little hesitation.
IS IT MIDNIGHT YET?
So it was a rewarding if exhausting start to the 2016 season, more than a grand of yards, almost 100 points, and many memorable moments. Money turned in one of the best when back in unfamiliar punt formation. The snap was somewhere east of gotcho, and there went 12, back to scoop it up out in his own end zone. Evading oncoming traffic, three defenders, he somehow managed to locate a receiver with a pass under extreme duress, and the fellow dived past the sticks for an amazing first down rescue.
But wait, the ref says trap, and refer back to the superstar list parsed earlier in this long-winded tome. Ball over on downs, play failed. But in scintillating style.
Now. Villarreal has revitalized a program that once was feared but had become somewhat of an afterthought in recent times. He’s done it with hard work, enthusiasm, and the ability to recognize the uniqueness of the St. Joe situation and work with it. Case in point, the team’s fancy new locker room down in Brownsville. The Observer can wax for hours about the ancient era when Gus Zavaletta used to piece together weight-lifting from milk cans, cement, and athletic tape. And how the legendary Bloodhound mentor turned a shower into a closet, elicited donations from the alums and citizens to pay for trips to the state tournament in basketball, and took the underdog squad to consecutive TAPPS titles in 1957 and 1958. Anyway. They also took state crowns in football.
Villarreal is cut from that same can-do mold, as he has been able to garner support from the community and interest in the ball club along with it. One notable family, whose freshman football son passed away unexpectedly some years back, stepped in philanthropically to help the football kids into their new digs, as the locker room is now a memorial to a fallen Bloodhound. That’s the special secret of St. Joe, where Catholic pride and fellowship has always been an important part of the program. And Villarreal has gotten his kids to buy into his Marine Corps-like conditioning regimen, which makes them able to gas other teams to the breaking point.
And it does not hurt that along with the other fine athletes on the roster, there is a special player. Money says that he and the Gang will work on their mistakes, get better every week, and see if they can get back into the private school playoffs and make some racket this time around.
“Whatever it takes, we’re going to do it,” he said after the rush hour was done. “I need to be more accurate with my passes, that’s one thing. I know I made some mistakes tonight, but I am going to break it down, see what I need to do, and correct. We got the job done tonight, we’re 1-0. But we are nowhere near where we need to be, where we want to be … and we know that, all of us.”
The postscript from this one comes from Gonzalez of Grulla, who as stated has a potential champ on his hands this season. He noted after Friday’s opener that his club would be alright.
“We’re going to be fine, I can tell you, for one reason, we are not going to have to play against a guy like Kai again this year, he is just the best in the Valley,” commented the coach, who should know a bit about stardom. He was a Rio Grande City folk hero himself back in the 1990s, then a championship signal-caller at Texas A&M-Kingsville after that. In these parts, they called him a superstar, indeed.
Takes one to know one, is all you need to know.