BY GREG SELBER
The game was over and the Bobcats were in, having clinched a playoff spot for the first time in five years and in dramatic fashion, at that, taking out ancient rival by 7 at Richard R. Flores Stadium.
As Coach J.J. Leija did an interview with one of the local television stations, the Edinburg team raced over to get behind him, whooping and hollering in unison to celebrate the team’s fourth District 31-5A victory along with the return to the postseason
And that is the way it has happened in 2016, as the Bobcats have shocked the Valley with win after win. With energy, Bobcat Pride, and resilient, never-say-die action, this underdog team has been unified from Day One, together in the pursuit of what most people considered improbably at best, they have gotten it done.
The triumph over North made the ‘Cats 4-1 in league and 5-3 overall with matches left against P-SJ-A schools Southwest and North. The Cougars, on the other hand, missed a chance to punch their ticket and now, at 2-3, 2-6, will be forced to win out (against P-SJ-A Memorial and Econ) to ensure their road to the playoffs.
The difference in this one was slim, 28-21, as Edinburg fell behind 14-7 early in the third period but then rambled to three scores in a row. The Bobcats stopped the Coogs at the 17 in the fourth and after surrendering a touchdown to North at 2:39, saw the hard-charging Coogs get an onside kick before recovering to register a key sack that helped preserve the win.
Safety Dantony Alvarez, one of many heroes in one outstanding football game from start to finish, explained how the ‘Cats have been able to become the surprise of the season in 31-6A.
“This is the senior year for some us, and we were just tired of losing,” said the defensive star who has been perhas the team’s best player in 2016. Friday he made nine tackles and produced a 50-yard punt return to set up a Bobcat six. “We are hungry on every play, you can tell, we just want to win the play and then go win the next one.”
As for Leija, the intense former ‘Cat player who has done the deed in Year One of his reign at his alma mater, Alvarez said that the issue is belief.
“Coach trusts us and we trust him, so we just play hard and know that we have each other’s back,” he said. “He helped us set our goals and we are being able to reach them this year.”
AN EXCELLENT STRUGGLE
It was a slugfest of a first half with both teams bringing the wood on almost every snap. EHS rode the return by Alvarez to a 3-yard run from Nathan Marez early in the second period but North came back with a drive after an interception by Andrew Salinas to roll 66 yards in nine plays, tying the score on a 1-yard run by Cristian Espinoza at 1:54 of the half.
When the Coogs rocked to a 70-yard TD drive to start the third, aided by a clutch cutback run for 36 yards by Justin Guerra on fourth and 2, Coach Rene Saenz’ club led 14-7.
EHS, as it has done all year, refused to buckle, knotting the game at 14 after a wild drive featuring five penalties on the rivals. Marez, who punched for 71 yards, banged in from the 4 at 1:45 of the third. He and Saul Ramirez (129 yards on his best night as Red and Blue) were able to dent the North defense consistently, as a couple of early pass completions helped diversify the attack.
After Raymond Quintanilla recovered a North fumble near the end of the period, the Bobcats scored to take the lead. Marez, who took a vicious shot from Isaiah Valdez of North a play before, dished out his own damage on a bruising 11-yard TD rush at 10:15 of the fourth.
Then the Bobcats showed their magic was alive and well, getting an onside kick on a pooch that defensive back Freddy Sifuentes corralled at the North 26. It looked bleak for the drive with a 4th-and-10 snap but Marez sailed a great ball into the left corner of the end zone where Ramon Lopez dived to catch it for the score at 8:50.
Sifuentes (seven tackles in the second half) was a star in the half while the other defenders of note for the ‘Cats were linebackers James Champion and Edgar Guerrero (18 tackles combined) and safety Manny Salinas.
For North, Guerra totaled 121 yards rushing with five receptions and the team actually outgained EHS, 300 to 252. Espinoza completed 10 of 15 passes and ran for 63 yards, in one of his strongest outings of the season.
Defensively, North benefited from the toughness of LB Javi de la Cruz (11 hits) and 10 pounds from Valdez. DB Jacob Guerrero collected eight stops, Adrian Ortiz seven.
Late in the night, when North trailed by 7 but had the ball back after Nick Marin grabbed an inside kick, the Coogs died on the vine when EHS recorded sack for minus-11, Adalberto Segura and Felipe Elizondo combining on the crucial tackle.
EHS had gone 8-32 the past four seasons since a playoff trip in 2011, but will now return to the postseason. North, seeking to get back there, too, will now have to catch Econ (3-2, after beating Southwest Thursday). The Jags face the league’s two top teams, Vela and Pharr North, to finish and if they and North end up even, the Coogs have the tie-breaker by virtue of a 17-6 win over Econ Oct. 14.