One thing that you can always count on at a J.J. Leija practice is seeing people get fired up, running around and making noise. And as the Bobcats finished up their first week of fall workouts with a scrimmage Saturday, there was plenty of action and energy from a team that knows it has a target on its back starting 2017.
“We say that the kids can’t be enthusiastic unless the coaches are too,” said Leija, last year’s All-Valley Coach of the Year for the job he did resurrecting the program – his alma mater – from the depths of a five-year playoff drought. “We expect to try and improve on last year, we want to get farther in the playoffs. We know people are looking for us this season, there won’t be any surprises, so we know we have to keep working hard.”
EHS brings back bits and pieces from last year’s stunning 7-4 club and that includes some sophomores (now juniors) who got playing time. Leija notes that, as always, depth will be an issue, but feels strongly that his group has what it takes to repeat.
“We have some excellent O-line guys back and a bunch of skill guys we think are going to allow us to open it up more this year,” said the coach, whose kids will take to the scrimmage field Friday at La Feria for a tilt against the Lions and the Bloodhounds of St. Joe. “We’re working in some new D-line players, we lost some there. But the new guys are going to just go in there and be aggressive, make things happen, as they get experience. That’s the deal here this year, everyone is going to get in and go, work hard, make something happen.”
The Bobcats were a relentless force in 2017, refusing to worry about what other people said about them. Picked to finish near the bottom of the district, they came out right at the top. Now that Texas Football Magazine has selected them third in 31-6A for ‘17, the game is on. And one of the guys who will attempt to make the ‘Cats a winner again is a stocky little lineman who exemplifies the never-say-die spirit.
“We have to play together as brothers and we can do it again,” said guard Oscar Juarez, a 110 percent motor guy who led the 2016 charge as a junior. “We had a lot of guys in here this summer working, and the leadership is something we are all doing, as much as we can.”
Juarez showed his senior chops early in the fall campaign, relates Leija.
“He had to go deliver some stuff with his dad, up in Victoria, and I told them, hey, don’t worry, just get some rest, they were working all night. But Oscar said, ‘No, coach I’m gonna be there for the morning practice,’ and so they drove all night and he got back at like 7:30 a.m. And you know what, he was here for the practice. That is Bobcat Pride, right there.”
Juarez will be joined by returning OL hogs Nelson Carrillo and Jorge Ayala, with a new center – Leonel Arteaga – whose father was an All-State pick back in 1985 when EHS was ranked No. 10 in the state.
Under center will be junior Matt Cruz or senior Danny Shawnee, the latter a North transfer, and the ‘Cats have a real bevy of offensive weapons.
“We are hoping to be more versatile this year, throw it more, it we can establish the run and get defenses to respect that,” said Leija, who’s got returner Angel Salinas at slot and newcomer and track star Eric Cano in the mix, plus a number of other solid kids, such as Ramon Lopez, who had his moments in 2016. Keep an eye on Herlin Benavides, a promising RB prospect who was injured a year ago.
Defensively, EHS will build around Raymond Quintanilla, a linebacker who has put on 15 pounds of muscle and was picked as the preseason defensive MVP by Texas Football. The corners return in Abel Alonzo and Rollie Martinez, while Manny Salinas is a veteran DB. Other fellows counted on to pitch in on D: linemen C.J. Renteria and J.R Garza. Ryan Ochoa, a highly touted sophomore, is the free safety and the coaches say he will be a fine player sooner than later.
In all, Leija likes his squad heading into fall, and though he knows EHS will a target for other teams, especially in town, he is cool with that.
“We don’t have stars and standouts like some teams, and we’re not very big,” he said. “But we have a bite to us on defense, we have some talented kids on offense, and we’re ready to show what we can do.”