BY GREG SELBER
EDINBURG – It was an upset to be sure, though the wise among us imagined that it might be a more even matchup than some were saying. After all, Weslaco East did come in 6-4 but had fashioned that record in the Murderer’s Row of District 32-6A, while No. 1 Vela – 9-1 before this shock to the system – had cakewalked through a mediocre crew in adjoining 31-6A.
Still. Still. This was big.
Not quite as big as La Joya’s stunning 10-7 shutdown of high-powered San Benito back in 1993, and maybe not as surprising as Rivera’s humbling of unbeaten Pharr North back in 1997, after the Raiders had beaten the Other Raiders by 38 in the season opener. Put it on a par with another bi-district surprise involving a Weslaco team: the Panthers’ 28-16 win over unblemished Edinburg North back in 1992.
Oh, whatever game it may have reminded us of, bottom line is that in 2016, East came over to Richard R. Flores Stadium and refused to leave without the W. Out-hitting, out-hustling and out-believing the favored SaberCats, the Wildcats kept coming all night. And finally, when one side was preparing for overtime after a championship drive that knotted the affair at 28, the other side, the East Side (tonight the Strong Side) plowed downfield in an uncharacteristic Half-Minute Offense. Having trailed most of the night but also having stayed right there in the enemy grill, the ‘Cats got two great breakouts from J.C. Vargas and as time ran out, a clutch 39-yard field goal from cool little Orlando Fuentes.
Thus, 31-28: SaberCats flushed with horror, Wildcats erupting with joy. Mike Burget’s team, despite several jarring injuries to start the season, a series of narrow losses in the Meat Grinder, and an underdog role on the road against a district champ, had emerged with the stirring victory.
The team that wanted it more found a way to take it, it’s just that simple. Energized by a mammoth night of hard running from converted linebacker Josh Pedraza, East won the battle up front and was the tougher side, mentally and physically. Vela, which had averaged 44 points per game and had not lost a ball game since Week 2 at Edcouch-Elsa, committed a series of costly penalties at the wrong junctures and its vaunted offensive line was out-quicked by an East defense that held star runner Robert Guerra to 136 yards on 23 carries. For the game the Sabes could muster just 314 total yards, their lowest yield for a season that is now flat over.
Vela, 12-1 last year in Class 5A and looking to see how far it could go in 6A for 2016, will go no further, as East, an experienced campaigner in these waters, advances to a rematch against Del Rio, the club that knocked the Wildcats out in area last season.
The Sabes led 7-0, 14-7, and 21-14 but the way Pedraza was gashing the tiring SaberCat defense, one could feel the momentum start to migrate in the fourth. Rumbling for 320 yards on 36 carries, the 181-pound state champ in power lifting just kept on attacking the line of scrimmage. After TD runs of 60, 57, and 48 the junior barreled in from the 3 to give his team its first advantage, 28-21, at the 3:03 mark of the last stanza. This came after a masterful drive that was patented East, ball control and clock-eating, aided at the beginning by a Vela penalty good for 15 yards. When Pedraza banged in it looked like curtains for the home team, but not quite.
QB Nate Garcia, injured earlier in the night, had by now returned with a heavily taped ankle and the junior guided his offense down the field. Vela is one of the best at the Two-Minute Drill and sure enough, the Sabes ended up re-tying the game after a couple of nifty completions to tight end Nico Rodriguez. His second, for 16 yards on the throwback, set the ball at the 5, and then Guerra – who was pummeled unmercifully all night by a gang-tackling, head-hunting Wildcat D – crunched across to tie it at 0:32.
At that stage, opinions varied on what was to come. Vela figured its chances were good in the extra session, as it does possess a versatile and productive offense. Over on the East sideline some of the ‘Cats were pondering OT, some were not.
Pedraza said that when Vela scored, he turned to one of his coaches, and said, “Hey, we got this, right now.” And he was right.
Linebacker Adrian Duran, a hard-tackling veteran who on Veterans Day recorded a dozen stops, said that even though he was preparing for more, he had a feeling that the team’s superb conditioning – which had started to show in the fourth period – would somehow win the day.
It took a pair of scintillating runs by Vargas, this year’s version of Ciro the Hero, to make that happen. First he jetted 16 yards and appeared to be going all the way, from the East 39, until the run was whistled down – the fleet junior had stepped out at the Vela 45. No problem. Next snap, Vargas raced past the flagging Vela defenders for 24 yards down to the 21. These guys came to win, man! Even a motion call did not stop East as in the final seconds, Pedraza got four of the minus-5 back. This set up the moment of moments and more than one Observer looked at the East sideline to see whether the Valley’s only female kicker was going to run in there and make history. Paybacks for Clinton!
But was No. 86, and it was Orlando Fuentes and his name will live in Mid-Valley glory for all time. Splitting the uprights from 39 yards out, he sliced the final lance into the dying Vela body, and the silence on the home side was mountainous.
Before the night Burget narrated the season’s roll, noting the disturbing injuries to a leading tackler and a leading blocker, but also suggesting that his young team had improved week by week.
“We lost to Harlingen, close game, same with San Benito and Los Fresnos,” said the Bearded Wonder, who has taken East into the playoffs in all four of his seasons. “We have been getting better, these kids know what kind of team they have and even though we’re playing a fine team in Vela, I guarantee one thing, we are coming to hit tonight!”
And hit they did, from the opening bell, commencing a classic style matchup between boxer and puncher. The teams felt each other out and then exchanged bang-bang scores, Garcia screaming in for a 21-yard 6-pointer for Vela at 2:07 of the first, the punishing Pedraza answering with a 60-yard dash. For the season, he came in with 1,237 yards and 15 scores and Burget considers him one of the finest backs the program has ever had. Think about that one for a moment … right, dude is bad!
Later, Guerra, in his second night back after having missed six contests, eased in for a 9-yard TD in his inimitable style, slowing down after a juke and bounce-out, giving the trailing ‘Cats a chance to not get him … Guerra, he will be Guerra, but the guy amassed more than 1,000 in four games, and yes, he’s the same cocky cat that scored those nine touchdowns in one game, in the opener against Victoria East. Superbad!
But against This East, the yards came with a load of licks, as the Wildcats roared to the ball time after time, beating the slower Vela line and pounding into Guerra with a ferocity that no locals could remember seeing; they absolutely cracked Vela’s star runner. Every play. Even when he returned kicks, they knocked his block off!
Still the SaberCats led 14-7 at the half, as East had seen a drive stall when hard-knocks safety Nick Enriquez (19 tackles, 199 for the season) forced a fumble that tackle Pablo Trevino corralled at the Sabes 33. Then as the half ended, the ‘Cats had marched into the shadow of the dreaded north end zone, whereupon Adrian Acosta swept in to block a field goal.
At the break, Vela was up, and yet, the visitor had shown it was not going to back down. As its coach suggested, East was here to hit.
Not three plays into the third, the strongman Pedraza was off to the races again, showing his speed with a 57-yard run at 11:04. It stayed a tie at 14 until the Sabes took advantage of a short field to go 50 yards for the lead again, 21-14 on Guerra’s 1-yard punch in the late stages of the third.
Once again, some might have expected East to fade, but it did not, as Pedraza quickly provided the tying blast, from 48 yards out at 10:09 of the fourth.
“I owe it all to my line, those guys did a great job,” said the rocket on the loose, also making sure to note that he has a ton of respect for Guerra.
“I mean, he’s the best in the Valley probably, what can you say? He is very athletic,” said Pedraza, who is also, by the way, very athletic. “We didn’t get the lead until the fourth quarter but we had confidence. We knew we could do it. And the line was great tonight, they really opened up some holes.”
Filling the hole that Pedraza left when he switched to offense, well, one of the new faces belongs to sophomore Freddy Cardenas, who made seven tackles against Vela, none more vital than the one he pinned on Guerra when the senior tried to escape on a screen pass after Pedraza’s third score. Trapping the powerful runner for a 10-yard loss, Cardenas helped turn the ball over to his offensive friends as Vela was forced to punt.
That’s when the Sabes did what they do too often, they committed a penalty. A 15-yard personal foul gave the underdog the ball at the Vela 48, and from there Burget and Co. milked the clock, methodically working their way downfield until they ran out of green. Now just 3:03 remained, with East ahead by 7 after Pedraza laced through the moribund Vela D for a 3-yard touch.
The rest is history, as Vela came down, as fine teams will do, to tie the score again, with a huge sigh of relief. But the moral of this story is, never count out a club with desire, one that wants to beat you more than anything. Many people figured that Burget would sit on the ball and take his chances in OT. But with 32 seconds left, the ‘Cats chose to go for it. With… the… run…
And it worked. The Vela kids were dragging and Vargas, relatively fresh, went to town.
“He didn’t get the ball that much tonight, but when he did, he made it count,” said a happy Burget afterward. “He came through for us when we needed him and that’s why he is such a great player, and a great kid. We have a lot of good ones right now, like Fabian [Castro, senior RB). He was hurt and hurt bad, but he worked his way back and is at fullback, contributing; he has so much heart! He sort of exemplifies this team, unselfish kid who never gave up and found a way to overcome his adversity and make a difference for the team.”
The kids have always fought like banshees for Burget, a whimsical sort at times and a hard-driving taskmaster at others; this program has been built on guts and determination, with enough talent to put the ‘Cats over the top in most seasons. This year has been a struggle and frankly, East almost didn’t get in at all, having to win on the final night to punch the ticket.
But the players never wavered.
“We had the belief in Coach Burget and we followed what the coaches told us,” said the soft-spoken Duran, who was exceeded in tackles Friday by junior Fernando Garza, who was all over the lot with 17 stops. “We kept Guerra contained and that was the gameplan, we didn’t want him to run wild. And Fernie, he’s very fast for a D-end, and he’s a junior so I hope he is able to come back next year and do some more of this. Tonight, we were in great condition, I mean, sure we got tired some at the end. But we just kept coming and we knew we had them.”
As for that underrated East offensive line, you know, the one that beat Vela down series by series, wearing the SaberCats out and giving Pedraza launching pad after launching pad, big senior tackle Albert Vazquez can explain.
“We wanted to be physical with them, we are known for that, we just come at you,” said Vazquez, whose downfield blocking on one of Pedraza’s long-distance calls was a thing of beauty. “We all gave it all, everything we had and when it got late in the game and we were tired … we just kicked it into another gear.”
Yes, they did, yes they did. The Wildcats can head onward in the postseason knowing that they did a number of things, in memorable style. They clinched a sweep for 32-6A against the four Edinburg schools from 31. They recorded a playoff win for their beloved mentor Burget, who took the team three-deep in 2014 and into area last year. And they showed that fire and desire, mixed in with execution and talent, can bring a team into the bright lights and on to greater glory, no matter what the pregame predictions might be. And that includes QB Richard Lefevre, the Unstoppable Force on the sneak. He came through, hard.
The indefatigable Pedraza, after speaking to the media following the stunning upset, raced toward the sideline, just in time to arrive for the end of the school song. With a mighty long-jump leap which he should not – after 36 carries and duty as the team’s long snapper of all things – have been able to make, landed perfectly, in line with his teammates and brothers. Symbolic. In the nick of time, he got where he needed to be, just as he had done with four scores against the Sabes.
Yep. You had to love what East was able to do here Friday, as its accomplishment against the odds – and the way it unfolded – were what high school football is all about. No. 1 goes down. Underdog plays its best game of the year, Valley shocked. All that.
And. On the other hand, you could be Vela. And if you are, you don’t really want to talk about it right now.