BY GREG SELBER
EDINBURG – Can-not-do-it, repeat cannot. When you get your openings against a scoring machine like Vela, you’ve got to cash your chances in for points, because the SaberCats are going to keep scoring. Even coming off a loss, minus 9-touchdown instant legend Robert Guerra, the Sabes are going to keep firing.
So Brownsville Veterans, in town for a highly interesting battle with Vela here Friday night, did many good things. The Chargers got a monster game from Gustavo Vazquez on offense, and some excellent sticks from defenders Brandon Lee Martinez and David Almaraz. They gained 361 yards at Richard R. Flores Stadium. But they didn’t make their opportunities count, and the result was a 35-10 loss that was in some ways closer than numbers would initially dictate.
The night can be encapsulated by recounting stretches from the first half. Having led early courtesy of the high-knees churning, physically dominant Vazquez – a 215-pound junior who rampaged for 177 yards and caught passes good for 76 more – the Chargers, now 2-1 with the loss, cranked out two first downs after Vela tied the game later in the first. But just when it looked like they were headed for the lead, a Vela defender was headed the other way with the ball! Nick Enriquez stripped it from a Vets runner and sprinted 65 yards for a touchdown at 1:47.
Instead of finishing a drive that had scoring potential, Vets now was looking up at a 14-7 deficit.
Illustrative juncture No. 2 came in the second quarter, when the Chargers marched down to the Vela 11. Three plays did not connect, Josh Vazquez of the Sabes making a key corral of the dreaded Other Vazquez on second down, and Coach David Cantu’s club settled for a field goal.
Now Vela went rolling all the way down to the Vets 19 as the period went on, but fumbled it away with senior Damian Tabares – another of the good-looking specimens on the field for the Chargers, recovering. Good. But Vets was not able to move it and tried a fake punt from its own 22, Vazquez getting stopped by Vela’s Vazquez and Jeremy Ruiz, giving the Sabes the ball at the 28. They scored with 1:48 to go on a 10-yard pass from Nate Garcia to Marcos Santos, and led 21-10 at the half. Not good.
The math don’t lie. If the visitor completes the promising work it had started on a number of occasions – it amassed 215 yards in the half to 169 for Vela – it is a different story.
DOING WHAT THEY DO
However, it was not a different story as the SaberCats, coming off a heartbreaking last-second (literally) defeat at the Black Hole last week against Edcouch-Elsa, were up to the challenges in front of them.
Although Guerra missed the outing with a shoulder injury, his understudy was simply brilliant. Christian Flores, a lithe sophomore who was the king of the freshman level last year, hit the ground running for his debut in the limelight, and didn’t stop until he had piled up 183 yards on 24 carries. His father, Rene, was the feature back for Edinburg North’s district champ back in 1992, a guy who rushed for 946 yards in the Run-and-Shoot, which is hard to do, and also had about 450 receiving yards that year.
His son is super fast, with amazing anticipation, laser-quick feet and the first-step, shoulder-dip-and-go instinct that one does not develop in drills or in the weight room. Natural ability. Flores, spelling the star Guerra, did his own star turn and did it well, dipping and darting through the Vets defense like a seasoned veteran for 115 yards in the first half. He was the offensive player of the first 24 minutes for the SaberCats, while junior quarterback Garcia had the second half taken care of.
Garcia, who replaced left-handed gamer Fabian Pedraza this year after the latter led the program to a 12-1 gem of a 2015 season, has been terrific in three starts. Friday he was slow to get cranking as Martinez and Almaraz, plus tough DB Mario Davila, gave him little room in the middle.
Garcia rushed for more than 200 yards last week against the ‘Jackets, but picked up just 15 in the first half Friday. Then, he detonated nicely after the break. Vela committed an illegal block on the opening kickoff and started the series at its own 6. But Garcia found Brandon Guzman on third and 10 to move the sticks, Guzman’s gutsy run after the catch getting the last few steps. Garcia broke loose for a 26-yard scamper later in a 94-yard march and finished it with a 19-yard pass to Santos, who is one of those new cats – Guzman being another – who is charged with filling the graduation holes left by four of the best wideouts in the Valley from 2015.
After Vets drove to a missed field goal (see lead theme) at 4:10, Vela was off again, doing what Vela generally does, which is move the ball behind one of the top offensive lines in the Valley, and score. Thanks to a 36-yard keeper from the slippery Garcia, the Sabes were about to put the result away. After a 21-yard strike from Garcia (9 of 16, no picks) to junior Ahiel Garcia, the junior QB took it in himself on a masterful run. He he stopped and started at two different steps along the 17-yard path to paydirt, making it 35-10 at 0:58 of the third.
Some runners stop and look, and become roadkill. Garcia has the knack for making defenders miss and moving on; he and Flores are similar in this respect: they see it, and they exploit it with balance, jukes at the right moment to avoid disaster, and surprising strength for guys who are about 150 and 165, respectively.
LOOK AT THIS
The other reason that the SaberCats improved to 2-1 heading into the bye week has to do with defense. Though the unit surrendered 361 yards, it also came up with the stops it needed in the Red Zone, got the big fumble return from Ruiz, and basically bent some but did not break. Rangy safety Enriquez, who has been a tackling marvel through three games, followed up a 16-stop effort against E-E with 10 more versus Vets. He also went toe to toe with the thick and explosive Vazquez of the Chargers more than once and lived to tell about it.
To repeat, No. 11 for the Chargers is a man out there, and he will be hard to deal with for 32-5A defenses, write that down. He is a hard-working warrior whose family moved to Florida at the start of the 2015 season; the clan came back to the Valley this year, much to the joy of the Chargers, and Vazquez is one of those humble, 110-percenters that every successful team must have. Dude even works at Whataburger every day after practice. He is dedication and discipline personified.
Now, other Vela kids who did the job Tuesday were the workmanlike Vazquez at linebacker, DT Daniel Elizondo (eight tackles, very physical player inside), and an old new face. Ryan Rodriguez, one of the team leaders on D as a junior, had decided not to play ball this year as he prepares for a college baseball shot. But as Parents Day wound its way through the air Friday, there he was, dressed out and ready to pop. In his first contest back with the Blue and Black, Rodriguez recorded eight tackles and returned a kickoff back to his own 44 in the first half to set up one Vela TD drive. What an addition!
Sum it: Vela showed that even with some injuries, and even after a loss, it is still a team to be reckoned with, to say the least. The SaberCats have now scored 125 points in three games, a bit off the torrid pace of last year’s three-deep playoff run. But the defense seems to be coming right along, and the emergence of Flores in the backfield means that once Guerra returns to the field – Sept. 23 against city rival North in the 31-6A opener – the offense will be even more nasty. Garcia continues to do what Pedraza did last year, which is to prove himself a worthy successor. Remember how everyone was saying that there would never be another Ebher Lopez? This year they were like, well, Fabian, you know … and they were great players, for sure. But Garcia, all 150 pounds of him, is going to make people start saying his name and not those of QBs of the past; he’s got this, boy!
Coach Michael Salinas of Vela was interested in seeing how his club would respond to a little adversity, and the answer is, pretty well. Cantu of Vets knows that despite the fact that his Chargers didn’t cash, and eventually wore out chasing the Sabes around, they will be heard from big time in the 32-5A hunt. Especially since normally dangerous Donna has started the 2016 season with uncharacteristically poor showings.
“We’ll be OK, I know that,” said Cantu after the match. “You just can’t give a team like that too many chances, and you have to make the most of the ones you get. Still, I think we’ll be alright, we saw some good things tonight, we can compete with the best teams, and we’re excited to get into district play in two weeks.”