GRULLA GATORS LAUNCH 2016 FOOTBALL SEASON WITH STRONG DISTRICT TITLE HOPES
By Kenneth Roberts
The Grulla Gators football team has started the 2016 season with strong optimism that a mixture of many highly experienced veterans and some promising youngsters will elevate the team to an excellent season and possibly a district title.
The Gators achieved a 2-2 District 16-4A Division I third place finish and playoff berth in 2015 before coming up short by a 26-21 score against Gonzales in a first round playoff battle.
The Gators opened the season at home on Friday night, Aug. 26 with a 64-35 loss to St. Joseph’s in a non-district clash. Gator Head Coach Abel Gonzalez III commented, “I was pleased about how well we were able to move the ball as we gained 466 total yards and scored 35 points. We have to get better defensively; we were up against perhaps the best offense in the Valley. I was pleased by the way we competed and continued to play hard all four quarters.”
After the season opener, the Gators defeated the Raymondville Bearkats 48-14 on the road before losing a narrow 35-34 decision to the PSJA Southwest Javelinas at home. In week four on Friday night, Sept. 16, the Gators defeated Lyford 17-7 on the road. The Gators will launch district play at home on Thursday night, Oct. 13 against the Zapata Hawks.
The Gators skipper stressed, “We had a good summer of workouts and two positive and successful scrimmages. The defense did particularly well in preseason. Morale among our players was great (in preseason) and continues to be great.”
“We have great leaders on both sides of the ball; a good mix of offensive and defensive leaders,” emphasized Gonzalez. “I like our leadership and work ethic; if we keep working and stay focused I believe we can have a very successful season. We have a good number of players who are beginning their third season as starters. We have a good mixture of experienced veterans and promising youngsters. We have some talented youngsters who should be able to earn significant playing time in the offensive and defensive lines and also skill positions.”
In its preseason edition, Texas Football magazine indicated that the Gators return seven starters on offense and five more on defense.
Gonzalez explained, “We will continue to be a spread offense and try to get our players in space. Our offense should have a good number of explosive plays…Our quarterback should be the focal point of the offense as he can make big plays with both his arm and his legs…Our offensive line has been going through a transition period with some new faces. Our offensive line continues to show clear improvement and is coming together to be an effective unit.”
Senior quarterback Fabian Anzaldua (175 pounds) earned first team All-District honors with his 2015 performance as he rushed for 861 yards and eight touchdowns and passed for 1018 yards and 12 more scores with only four interceptions. Anzaldua rushed for more than 100 yards in four games, including outputs of 208 and 186 yards.
Coach Gonzalez noted that in the 2016 season opener, Anzaldua rushed for 217 yards on 14 carries and broke loose for touchdown runs of 68 and 75 yards, as well as throwing two scoring passes.
Gonzalez predicted, “I think this will be his best year yet. He’s a hard worker with very good leadership abilities. He put in a lot of extra work during the offseason. He has a firm grasp of the offense and is familiar with what we’re trying to do offensively. His biggest assets are his elusiveness and playmaking abilities.”
Senior Diego Mata (170) and sophomore Dillen Salinas (165) will perform most of the running back duties, with each player earning second team All-District honors in 2015. Gonzalez called Mata “a tough, downhill runner; he’s a great blocker. We look for him to be a more explosive runner this year.” Mata collected 137 yards rushing against PSJA Southwest last season.
The coach explained that Salinas “functions as both a slot receiver and runner. He played very well in significant action last year. He has excellent speed and quickness; he has excellent ability to catch the ball.” Salinas romped for 105 yards on nine carries in the season opener, including a 55-yard scoring scamper.
Junior Miguel Flores (175) was the District Newcomer of the Year in 2015 and gained first team All-District recognition as he caught 21 passes for 280 yards and six touchdowns, rushed for 270 yards and two additional scores, and returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown. Seniors Omar Martinez (180) and Luis Martinez (185) also return as starters, having achieved Honorable Mention All-District plaudits in 2015.
“I think our receiving corps could be one of the better groups in our district,” commented Gonzalez. “They all catch the ball well and have excellent playmaking abilities. All four receivers (including Dillen Salinas) have good to great speed.” He noted that Luis Martinez and Dillen Salinas each caught a scoring pass in the season opener.
The Gator mentor added, “When we need a tight end, Javier Melchor (205) will fulfill that role. He will be primarily used as a blocker, but we think he can catch some balls and also function as a back.”
Junior left guard Aldhair Lopez (280) is the only returning offensive line starter for the Gators. Gonzalez pointed out that the Gators lost two three-year offensive line starters from the 2015 team, with two players winning first team All-District honors and a third gaining second team recognition. Lopez himself achieved Honorable Mention All-District honors as a sophomore last year.
Junior Jaime Rios (215) has moved in as the starter at left tackle. Senior Joe Velasquez (240) can play both center and right tackle. Junior David Carrillo (285) is the clear starter at right guard. Sophomore Andrew Lopez (225) is also available at the center position. Junior Jorge De La Rosa (205) sees plenty of action at right tackle.
Gonzalez stressed, “I’m very impressed with how our young linemen are coming along. I think Jaime Rios and David Carrillo have the potential to be very good players. Aldhair Lopez was good enough to start on a veteran line as a sophomore. Our line has to get used to working together, but as time goes by, I’m confident they will be a very successful line.”
Concerning the defensive outlook, the coach explained, “We’ll have a 4-2-5 defense with mostly zone coverage in the secondary. This is the second year of using this 4-2 alignment. I thought we played really well defensively last year. I expect our defense this year to build off last year’s success. We’re typically not a blitzing defense; we focus on technique and assignment football…We think our defensive strength is most evident at linebacker.”
Junior inside linebacker Luis Cabello (165) earned first team All-District honors in 2015 as a sophomore as he racked up 109 tackles, three sacks, and two caused fumbles. Gonzalez declared that Cabello, who achieved 10 tackles in the season opener, “has a nose for the football and is very tough. He made plenty of big stops last year; he’s a very big problem for opposing offenses.”
Senior Orly Ramirez (195) returns as a starter at outside linebacker. Coach Gonzalez evaluated him as “a very strong kid with good speed. We’re looking for him to have a really big year.”
Junior Jay Solis (165) returns as a starter at cornerback after hauling in five interceptions and achieving first team All-District recognition last year. He garnered 11 tackles and an interception in the season opener. Gonzalez called Solis “a ball hawk in the secondary; he has great coverage skills, great jumping ability, and the ability to lock down opposing receivers.”
Senior Javier Pena (220) returns as a defensive end starter, having gained Honorable Mention honors in 2015. Gonzalez emphasized, “He will be our defensive line leader. He’s good at stopping the run and getting to the quarterback.”
Senior Jorge Beltran (145) has moved in as a starter at cornerback. Senior Aaron Mendez (160) is a transfer player who will start at free safety.
Gonzalez predicted that junior Marco Guerrero (155) and sophomore Benny Cantu (160) “both have promising futures” at outside linebacker. Sophomore Joe Ramos (180) and senior Bobby Garcia (175) will also see significant playing time at inside linebacker.
Other defensive line candidates are sophomore Miguel Salazar (230), senior Alex Alaniz (235) and senior end Eluid Flores (195). Gonzalez noted that Flores was moved from tight end after achieving second team All-District plaudits at that position in 2015. Offensive linemen Joe Velasquez and Jaime Rios are also available for defensive line duty if needed.
Other options in the secondary are junior Eduardo Elizondo (155) and senior cornerback Edgar Garza (165).
Freddy Gonzalez will again perform placekicking duties, while Dillen Salinas will handle punting chores after winning Honorable Mention All-District honors in that role in 2015.
Gonzalez contended, “Our district is tough every year. La Feria was undefeated in district last year and will again be tough since they return a lot of key players. Kingsville was 3-1 in district and should again be strong. Zapata is always a hard nosed team and should again be solid. Hidalgo is showing definite improvement.”
Gonzalez predicted that if the Gators stay healthy and the breaks go their way, they should achieve success on the gridiron in 2016 and perhaps have a good chance for a district championship.