By Kenneth Roberts
The Rio Grande City Rattlers used a big play offense, a stubborn defense, and a long punt return for a touchdown to tame the Zapata Hawks 20-6 in a non-district battle Friday night at Joe R. Sanchez Stadium.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Rattlers drew first blood early in the second stanza when Jason Perez threw a touchdown pass to Diego Garcia. The Hawks immediately retaliated with a scoring drive, but the Rattlers held on to a 7-6 lead when the extra point attempt failed. The Rattlers quickly countered with a scoring drive that hit paydirt when Diego Garcia caught a screen pass and raced 35 yards for a touchdown. The Rattlers went into intermission with a 13-6 lead after they turned away a long Hawk drive in the final seconds of the first half, with a holding penalty nullifying a Zapata touchdown.
In the final seconds of the third quarter, the Rattlers increased their margin to 20-6 when Israel Lambert returned a punt 64 yards for a score. The final margin remained 20-6 when the Rattler defense turned back two serious scoring threats by the Hawks in the final period.
Both Rattler offensive touchdowns came about when Perez connected with Diego Garcia for scoring passes of 23 and 35 yards. The Hawks, always known as a powerful running team, threw the ball more often than usual with quarterback Conner Moreno throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Kris Hinkel in the second quarter.
On the game’s opening possession, the Hawks carved out two first downs when quarterback Conner Moreno completed passes of 14 and 12 yards. On third and two at the Rio 47, the Hawks tried to run through the middle, but the play was stopped for no gain and the ball was knocked loose, with the Rattlers recovering at the Zapata 49.
Three plays later, Jason Perez kept the ball through left tackle for a 13-yard gain to the Zapata 24. On third and 17, Perez threw a screen pass to Javier Garcia, who raced to the 20 for an 11-yard completion. On fourth and six, Perez rolled to his left, but couldn’t connect with a receiver near the sideline at the 10, enabling the Hawks to take over on downs at their 20.
The Hawks started a promising march when Moreno connected with Kris Hinkel for a 12-yard completion and then kept the ball for a 15-yard gain. A late hit penalty against the Rattlers advanced the ball to the Rio 33, but a holding penalty stalled the drive and the Hawks were forced to punt from the Rio 39.
A short time later, the Rattlers started a scoring drive when Perez completed passes of 9 and 15 yards. On fourth and one at the Zapata 46, Perez kept the ball through the left side for an 10-yard gain to the 36. On third and 10, Perez hit a receiver across the middle for a 13-yard completion to the 23. On the next play, Perez fired a pass across the middle to Diego Garcia, who caught the ball inside the 5 and shook off a defender to step into the end zone for a 23-yard scoring pass with 9:52 left until halftime. The extra point kick was on target to give the Rattlers a 7-0 advantage.
On the first play of the ensuing Zapata drive, Carlos Gutierrez darted through a huge hole at right tackle and motored down the sideline for a 40-yard gain to the Rattler 37. Two plays later, Moreno scrambled to his right for a nine-yard gain and a late hit penalty against the Rattlers on the play advanced the ball to the 13. On fourth and eight, Moreno rolled to his right and rifled a pass to Kris Hinkel, who caught the ball just across the goal line for an 11-yard scoring pass with 6:28 remaining until intermission. The Rattlers held on to a 7-6 margin when the extra point attempt bounced off the right upright.
The Rattlers gained excellent field position by returning the short kickoff 21 yards to the Hawk 49. On fourth and nine, a roughing the kicker penalty against the Hawks gave the Rattlers a first down at the Zapata 33. Two plays later, Perez threw a screen pass to the left to Diego Garcia, who darted back to his right and scampered down the right sideline and outran a defender into the right corner of the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown pass with 4:23 left until intermission. The score remained 13-6 when a bad snap foiled the extra point attempt.
The Hawks then executed a long drive that came up inches short of the end zone as Alex Turi got things started with a 16-yard run to the Rio 49. On third and 20, Moreno hit Hinkel near the right sideline for a 22-yard completion to the 17. Carlos Gutierrez ripped off runs of eight and nine yards to move the ball to the 3.
On second and goal at the 2, Moreno sprinted to his left and lunged across the goal line for an apparent score, but a holding penalty against the Hawks nullified the play and moved the ball back to the 17. On the final play of the first half, a Hawk running play through the middle was stopped for no gain at the 17, and the Rattlers went into intermission still holding a 13-6 lead.
On the opening series of the third quarter, the Rattlers drove deep into Zapata territory with the help of a personal foul penalty against the Hawks. A 13-yard completion by Perez to Javier Garcia gave the Rattlers a first down at the Hawk 18. On second and 14, a Perez pass inside the 5 was bobbled by the intended receiver, and a Zapata defender made the interception and returned the ball to the 20.
Two plays later, Israel Lambert gave the Rattlers a golden opportunity by intercepting a pass at the Hawk 36 and returning the ball to the 27. Perez ran a sprintout to the left and cut back slightly for a 16-yard gain to the 11. On fourth and 12 at the 13, a pass into the right corner of the end zone was overthrown and the Hawks took over on downs.
The Hawks were forced to punt from their 32 and Israel Lambert caught the kick at the Rio 36 and returned the ball down the right sideline for a 64-yard scoring return with 30 seconds left in the third quarter, shaking off a would-be tackler inside the Zapata 30. The successful extra point kick boosted the Rattlers to a 20-6 advantage.
With the aid of two penalties, the Hawks drove deep into Rattler territory, with Moreno finding Danny Ruiz for a 13-yard completion to the Rio 19. On third and goal at the 2, Moreno kept the ball through right guard and was stopped inches short of the goal line. On fourth and goal, Moreno kept the ball but was tackled in the backfield at the 4 for a three-yard loss, ending the drive and giving the Rattlers the ball on downs.
The Rattlers gained another opportunity by recovering a fumbled punt at the Zapata 26, but could not capitalize even though Armando Gonzalez hit Leo Serna for a 19-yard completion to the 20.
The Hawks began a long drive as Moreno connected with Danny Ruiz for a 15-yard completion to the Zapata 35. Moreno then rolled to his left and threw a deep pass down the left sideline that Kris Hinkel caught for a 38-yard completion to the Rio 27. Moreno then hit Franco Arce for a 17-yard completion to the 10. On fourth and goal, Moreno couldn’t connect with a receiver in the right corner of the end zone, ending the drive and giving the Rattlers the ball.
The Rattlers then ran out the clock and walked off the field with a 20-6 win that improved their 2016 record to 2-0.
The Rattlers accumulated 341 total yards with 218 yards passing and 123 yards rushing. Jason Perez completed 16 of 22 passes for 189 yards and connected with Diego Garcia for scoring strikes of 23 and 35 yards. Diego Garcia caught five passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns, and Javier Garcia contributed four catches for 46 yards. Victor Marquez snared three passes for 29 yards, and Leo Serna achieved two receptions for 24 yards.
Jason Perez also supplied the lion’s share of the Rattler rushing attack with 76 yards on 15 carries.
The Hawks harvested 341 total yards, 171 yards passing and 170 yards rushing. The Rattler defense, however, harassed the Hawks into two fumbles and one interception.
The Rattlers, now 2-0 for the season, will begin District 31-5A play this Friday at 7:30 p.m. against the Valley View Tigers on the road. In 2015, the Rattlers edged the Tigers 24-18 in a memorable four-overtime thriller in Rio Grande City.