ON BUM HOOF, PI ROLLS OVER LIONS
LA FERIA – After his team had turned back the expected challenge from a stern La Feria bunch here Friday night, Coach Monty Stumbaugh gathered his Tarpons around. He praised them for their character and perseverance, and rightly so. Then he informed the happy kids that Saturday’s work would start at 10 a.m., 9 a.m. for injured players.
Nobody turned to look at Omar Silva at that point, though they all knew if any of the victorious Tarps were going to need treatment, it would be the gallant senior back. Out the last two weeks with an ankle sprain, Silva nonetheless came to the field of battle Friday, and after he was done running, there were a bunch of Lions who would need some treatment as well.
Stomping and storming his way to a whopping 448 yards on 34 carries, Port Isabel’s leader came within 12 yards of tying the Valley all-time record for yards in a game, held by Roma’s Orly Solis. And he carried the visitor to a hard-bitten 35-21 win in a clash between unbeaten clubs.
Churning out runs of 65, 60, 47, 47, and 31 yards – and bolting for nine other carries of between 10 and 19 steps – Silva entered the pantheon of greats, eclipsing the 431 yards that Weslaco’s Mishak Rivas hung on San Benito back in 2007. Every time PI needed a boost, Silva was there, bum ankle and all. He was, as they say, unstoppable. Even the saintly Kid, Trevor Speights of McAllen Memorial fame, never burned for as many, though he did break 300 seven times. Juan Martinez of La Joya did 400-plus in 2006 as did PI’s Marky Villarreal (403) in 2005.
Before the game Stumbaugh noted that during the opener against Brownsville Lopez, when Silva was injured, he came off the sideline trainer’s table in the overtime session to burst over the goal line and provide the winning 2-point conversion. So with a huge non-district test facing his promising young squad, the veteran mentor was hoping to have three-year starter Silva performing at 80 percent of his potential.
When the night was complete, the Tarpons having coasted out to a 21-0 lead after one period and having withstood a determined spurt from La Feria, the star of stars on his night of nights was relatively calm.
“I don’t know, maybe 75 percent really,” he responded when asked how ready he had been for the tussle. “Maybe 60? Really I just had a lot of positivity and faith, I mean it was a little swollen but I was just going to play through it no matter what.”
The punchline of course is that Silva has been a quarterback for two seasons, and a great defensive back. But with regular runner Carlos Orduna unable to go Friday due to an illness, the hobbled Silva knew he had to step up, literally and figuratively. He knew that the Tarpons are going to have to prove themselves every week, as teams are betting on the demise of one of the Valley’s top programs since the 1970s. And he knew that despite a 3-0 mark coming in, the team was considered an underdog against a La Feria crew with size, speed, and depth – along with receiving star Brandon Perez, who had scored eight times in three games coming in.
“But we don’t really listen to things like that,” Silva explained. “Everyone wants to talk about PI this and PI that, not expecting us to be good. But we just play with a lot of heart and the main thing … we just have a lot of fun playing the game!”
And that was truly one of the subtexts out at La Feria, as the Lions, district champs last season in 16-4A (Division I) took on the Tarpons. When you’re a Valley legend, the criticism comes, because folks just expect PI to be 12-1 every year. Well, nobody does that, as we know, but the past two seasons, following memorable Tarpon Time runs in 2012 and 2013, have been mildly pedestrian by the school’s lofty standards: first-round playoff ousters each time. Uneasy is the head that wears the crown and these days the Tarps are intent on climbing back up the mountaintop once again. A matchup like Friday’s represented just the sort of proving ground Stumbaugh was looking for.
And the game was excellent, with jam-packed stands on La Feria’s homecoming night. These two are not in the same league anymore (and that is too bad, thanks, UIL) but warred with each other for generations in the old District 32-3A. It was probably going to come down to two things: One, could the Tarpons keep the ball on the methodical drives they are known for, thus forcing the fast-paced Lions off the ball and field? And two, could the PI defense contain Perez, a muscular 4.4 sprinter who is certainly headed for college football next season?
Without giving away all the details too briskly, let it be said that PI was successful on both counts, and when La Feria missed two golden chances to score – one in the first half and one in the second – the steady Fish had swum to freedom.
At first, though, it looked like a blowout as PI scored three times in the opening 11 minutes, holding La Feria to very little at all. It was really very simple, and always is with the Tarpons. They line up with two tight ends, quarterback under center, and they go. Sophomore Cesar Aguilera is now the signal caller, and his quick, tight pitches to Silva heading forward in a hurry were working like a dream. The PI line is somewhat small this year, and mainly peopled with underclassmen. But those little hogs are quick and smart: Silva doesn’t need too much of an opening to run wild. He carried seven times for 64 yards on the opening drive and stabbed in from the 9 at 5:36.
La Feria, stymied by a pair of tackles from PI linebacker John Ray Martinez, punted. Silva, showing a little limp to his get-along, refused to quit, and rampaged 47 yards to set up a 10-yard scamper from Travis Camacho, a slippery junior prospect who went over 100 yards last week against Hidalgo, at 2:08.
In front of a nervous home crowd, La Feria again went three and out, as burly veteran Dylan Athanas came up with a tackle for loss. And Stumbaugh’s group once again pounced, this time on a short stint of 50 yards, Silva again rolling to a 47-yard gain and Camacho again finding the end zone, from the 3 at 0:49.
It was a stunning start to what everyone had expected to be a real dogfight. And it would be, starting … now.
La Feria had not been able to run against the PI front, and quarterback Jonathan Leija discovered that the enemy was waiting for Perez from the get-go. With gutty corner Jeremy Martinez blanketing the Lion speedster at the line and the Tarpons bringing mucho help from over the top and from outside linebacker, the La Feria penchant for quick bubble and tunnel screens was not finding validation.
But Leija (12 of 16, 134 yards) was able to locate Jayden Juarez in the left flat for a 24-yard gain, and sophomore Darius Hernandez – another promising back – got loose for a 23-yard gain, setting up his own 3-yard TD run a minute into the second period.
Still, La Feria was going to have to find a way to slow down Silva, who would amass 218 yards in the first half. How about a fumble on the ensuing kickoff? OK, done.
Taking over at the PI 31, Coach Oscar Salinas’ Lions seemed about ready to show why they have become a regular in the Top 20 poll the past few years. But after eight snaps moved the ball to the Tarpon 1, the home side fumbled it away with junior Brian Chavez recovering for PI. Chavez is a football player, man: very nice sticker.
At that point, up 14, PI went on another churn, 12 plays down to the 22, when a holding penalty stopped the chance at another score. La Feria, desperate to get back in, did it with one of the sequences Perez has become known for. Taking a quick dart from Leija, he avoided one defender with a sidestep, accelerated on a cutback right through the pursuing safety, and sprinted 55 yards to the house for a critical TD that narrowed the gap to 21-14 at 2:09. And that is how it stayed by the half. At 190, with his hands and wheels, Perez is a can’t-miss prospect for someone. Hello, A&M-Kingsville?
On for the third period, Silva did not show many ill effects of the lingering ankle woe. He ran five times for 43 yards on a steady march to start the half, and maybe PI was going to blow it open again. No.
The Lions stiffened when it counted, finally reaching Silva in the backfield, and doing it on three successive plays. A fourth-down pass went incomplete and La Feria took over at the 20, the crowd going high-decibel for only the second time Friday, the first having come on Perez’ scintillating scoot. But when John Ray Martinez (three hits) and Jeremy Martinez (two) combined to abort the La Feria drive, the Tarps had the ball at their own 35 after a punt.
One play, that’s all it took, with Silva roaring up the middle, making one cut and then steaming the distance for a 27-14 advantage at 2:34 of the third. Part of the PI game plan was to stash the ball and keep it away from La Feria. Long runs for scores do not accomplish that feat but they do tend to wear out the defense. Though La Feria got great efforts from a number of defenders – sophomore ‘backer Victor Luna, lanky safety Pedro Conteras, and rugged Salvador Mendoza come to mind – the unit was slowly getting gassed, and it showed.
Still, La Feria is a fine team and it would not yield an inch. Leija started to see room to run, picking up 25 yards on three smart shots to get the Lions cranking. Soon, Hernandez (18 for 73, La Feria totaled 294 by rush and pass) barreled in from the 5 to close the gap to 6 at 27-21. This score came as the third period ended, and it had been a really entertaining brawl so far. La Feria was charging and had to have the ball back to try and take the lead.
But … but Silva.
Barely three minutes into the fourth, he was gone, tearing through the tiring Lion D on a 60-yard touchdown run, his third of the night, to make it 35-21 at the 9:49 mark. Silva was just possessed Friday, and he refused to worry about injuries or expectations, or even records; his team collected 541 yards (all on the ground, it’s PI) but he would not make a good psychic. For example, when asked after the game how many yards he thought he’d gained, No. 7 said, “Oh, maybe 200.”
Half right, my brother, not even.
At any rate, La Feria had some vigor left to give and after Silva’s last score it got a tremendous kickoff return from junior Julian Trevino (keep an eye on this guy, he is relentless) and later a 25-yard run by the same fellow. Though PI’s No. 7 was the man of the night, La Feria’s No. 5 made the run of it, breaking five tackles and spinning out of chaos like a whirling dervish on that ridiculous 25-yarder; even the PI fans had to cheer for this stupendous display of second effort ad infinitum.
But as it had (not) done earlier in the night, La Feria did not convert, getting to the 10 before being stopped on fourth down with seven minutes left. Chavez and tackle Engel Silva made the big hit.
And from there, PI was PI.
Calmly marching off 12 plays for four first downs, the Tarpons wore down the rest of the time on the clock, ending the night with the 14-point win intact.
Next up for the Fighting Fish, ah no biggie, just St. Joe. That will be another clash of styles with the pace-mad Bloodhounds against the walk-it-up Tarps, another Game of the Week. The Observer has said for many moons that small school football can be the king if people will just pay attention to it. Real grass, bro, real grass! Great players, playah.
La Feria will definitely compete for its league title again, and plans to regroup in time for next week’s contest at Santa Rosa. Most teams will not be able to slow down Perez (five catches for 82 yards) as well, be assured. And Hernandez gets better every week; he has but to lift and grow to become one of the Valley’s better backs. La Feria has a big and nasty O-line, a solid quarter in Leija, and a young but feisty D. The Lions are going to be there, it says here. District starts Oct. 7 against Zapata, out west. PI also starts league play that night, against Rio Hondo, yeehaw! Be there.
As for Silva, well, gosh. That is a lot of yards. A whole lot. As he nurses his way back to 100 percent he can hang his helmet on one of the greatest nights any Valley runner has ever enjoyed. He says that the line is young but full of hustle and heart, and that the Tarpons aren’t listening to the naysayers; they know what they’re about.
But he will listen to Stumbaugh of course. As the happy visiting troop walked off the field, the coach patted his record-setting runner on the back.
“Nine o’clock, right Omar?” he said, again sounding the appointed time for players with injuries to report for Saturday’s session.
Silva shrugged and smiled.
“Right, coach, I’ll be there at 9.”