PHARR – The storms wound their ominous way toward the Tri-Cities Thursday night, taking their time but eventually arriving, dumping copious amounts of rain amid a Pink Floyd lightning show, and sending football fans scurrying to the parking lot to take cover.
As a result, the long-awaited showdown for first place in 31-6A between Vela and Pharr North was delayed by almost an hour. But just as the weather fireworks in time made their presence felt, the quick-striking Vela attack also arrived on the scene before the clash was through.
Ringing up 16 points in a bang-bang 6-minute stretch of the third period, the SaberCats pounced on the Raiders for a 30-14 victory, turning a 14-6 halftime edge into an insurmountable margin, in breakneck fashion.
Coach Michael Salinas’ club, now 5-0 in league and 7-1 overall, put two touchdowns on the board before North (4-1, 7-1) could run a single snap, courtesy of the greatest onside kick of all time following the first SaberCat TD of the half. Lefty kicker Austin Garza bounced a skipping can of corn down the left sideline and Marcos Santos scooped it up on the fly at the North 31. A few plays later, burly soph Marc Buhidar rammed in from the 1 at 7:46 for a 28-6 lead.
After Richard Campos blocked a punt through the end zone for a safety to end the initial North possession of the half, the Sabes were out in front by 24, and the Game of the Week was just about history.
The Raiders, who came into the game with the league’s top defense, having allowed just 170 yards per game through seven contests, gave up exactly that many by the half, thanks in part to a 60-yard Vela scoring run from super sophomore Christian Flores, a 51-yard gainer from junior QB Nate Garcia, and a 23-yard TD on the throwback to tight end Nico Rodriguez.
But North had started the delayed affair with a terrific drive of 74 yards that went 11 plays and culminated in a 2-yard bolt from steady Rene Ramirez at 7:22, for a 6-0 lead. Coach Marcus Kaufmann’s club used a committee of quarterbacks on the night and junior Randy Reyna was very effective in the early going, pounding ahead on the seldom-seen QB sneak no fewer than seven times in the opening two periods.
The hard-hitting Raider D forced a fumble early on, with David Garza finding the loose pig to stop a Vela opportunity. But late in the first the SaberCats – who gained 343 yards total, well off their usual pace of 500 per – got a huge 51-yard keeper from the elusive Garcia and rolled inside the 10. On fourth and goal from the 2, North defensive back Damien Vela executed a perfect pass breakup in the end zone, and the Sabes were denied.
At this stage, the home crowd – very impressive in number considering the weather and the Thursday slating – was fired up and with good reason. Some observers had suggested that North, though undefeated and ranked in the Top 5 for most of the season, was in for a beating against a Vela powerhouse that was 12-1 last year and had faced a much tougher schedule of foes so far in 2016. So the strong beginning for the Black Attack had their fans jacked, the visitor seeming a might on its hind legs at the moment.
But the difference might have been defense, and here, we note that the Sabes’ stop crew has been much maligned this season and in campaigns past. However, Thursday it limited the Raiders to 257 yards, and down 6-0, came up with a stop to force a punt, which traveled only to the 34.
From there, Vela registered in four plays and the toss from Garcia to the soph Rodriguez, a standout baseball pitcher and a big kid with wheels, gave the Sabes the lead at 7-6 one play into the second period.
Then arrived the Key Juncture of the night, or at least one of them, as North churned downfield for a solid 9-play advance, only to falter after a vital motion penalty and a field goal attempt that misfired.
Two plays after that missed chance, soph Flores made the Raiders regret their inability to complete, as he broke a tackle in the backfield and sped 60 yards to the end zone at 5:25. On the play, Flores – who now has broken the 100-yard mark five times this year – was seemingly collared behind the line by Oscar Cantu and Chris Rojas, and had his neck jerked fiercely before twisting away for the long jaunt to the Promised Land.
Having picked up 778 yards so far as the fill-in for the former starter at running back, Flores – whose father Rene was a fine runner for Edinburg North back in the early 1990s – has shown tremendous natural ability, plus the strength and toughness one might not expect from a 155-pound kid.
“I just try to go at them, attack the tacklers, before they go at me,” explained the talented youngster, who barreled and scooted for 163 yards Thursday on 18 carries. “I put my shoulder down and I try and break tackles if I have to. I need to get in the weight room in the offseason, believe me, I’m going to do it.”
The half ended with Vela on top, 14-6, though North could make a claim to having shown periods of excellence, especially in the first stanza. But the third quarter was all Vela, as it stormed to the 16-point blitz, and though the Raiders later connected on a 24-yard touchdown pass to Marco Salinas in the waning seconds of the third, they never recovered from the disastrous six minutes previously parsed.
Part of that was because the Vela defense was stout after giving up the early drive for six. Take away the 62 points the team allowed in its manic 1-point opening victory over Victoria East Aug. 26, and Vela has given up an average of 18 per night, so despite the fact that it will bend and yield yards, the crew does not surrender that much, point-wise.
After the game, Salinas praised the play of his defense and special teams, and indeed the latter crew produced a blocked extra point and punt, pulled off the amazing onside kick, and ran some nice returns to boot.
But the defense, led by squatty but strong tackle Pablo Trevino (10 tackles), did the job, keeping Ramirez (85 yards) from going nuts and limiting the Raiders to two pass completions. Soph Arturo Beltran, one of myriad Raiders to play behind center, dashed for 88 yards on 13 tries in a nice display of quickness Thursday.
“We regrouped after that first drive,” said the deceptively speedy Trevino, who got help from rugged senior linebacker Josh Vazquez (game-high 15 tackles) and headhunting junior safety Nick Enriquez (10 more). Tim Ellington recorded a sack from his end spot and corner Adrian Acosta (seven hits and a pick) also played well.
“I haven’t really seen the quarterback sneak before, it was new to all of us,” Trevino continued. “But we just keyed down, locked down, and did the job. I can appreciate a running team that comes at you like North did. Besides, when a team runs inside it sure gives us linemen a chance to make some plays!”
The Raiders had their share of defensive gems as well in this showdown for first place. At times during the second half, it appeared that Leroy Vazquez, the team’s leading tackler in 2016, was playing in triplicate, so often seen and heard were his sticks and shots against the SaberCat runners. He finished with 14 tackles in the loss while senior end Chris Rojas was active and lethal with 10 more, and also batted down a pass at the line. Smooth team leader Raudel Alvarez, veteran middle ‘backer C.J. Gaitan, and seasoned Damien Fuentes all had their moments on D.
Kaufmann’s unit is up next against a suddenly wobbly Economedes outfit, at home next Friday, before winding up the 31-6A hunt at Edinburg High Nov. 3. Now a game back of the SaberCats in the standings, the Raiders have to handle their business – as they had done for seven games prior to Thursday despite the loss of rushing star Bo Adams to injury – and hope for some assistance.
Vela will be at home next Thursday versus P-SJ-A and the clincher for Salinas’ 7-1 potential champ is at home as well, versus Econ Nov. 4. In their return to the highest classification after two seasons down in 5A, they have acquitted themselves well so far, scoring 222 points in five league victories and driving to the top of the charts.
On the road against a tough opponent, the SaberCats pulled off the key snaps they had to have to outdistance the Raiders, and have now won 29 of their last 33 ball games dating back to the start of 2014.
After the wild pregame weather, the game was played in cool conditions and without a drop of rain, ironically enough. Now who was that broadcast buffoon who wondered earlier in the week if we were due for a Rain Game, having been lucky so far to have had smooth sailing?
Eee, this guy.