There are many aspects to consider here, re: how Vela is a perfect 8-0 heading into this week’s showdown at P-SJ-A for the inside track on a district football title.
A 48-7 pounding of Pharr North Thursday illustrated a number of these aspects, including accurate pass-and-catch, another stifling defensive performance, and continued skill and expertise on the special teams. Nate Garcia missed his first three throws but then ran off a string of 12 in a row, with two TDs. The D limited the Raiders to nine first downs in a rout whose outcome was never in doubt. And Austin Garza pushed his season field goal total to nine with a pair of three-point boots.
All to the good, and now for the rest of the story.
With the graduation of the mercurial Robert Guerra, the program’s all-time leading rusher and scorer, Coach John Campbell came into the season with a runner-by-committee approach. And it is starting to shine, as Thursday the tandem of Sam Valenzuela and Aaron Alvarez combined for 177 yards on just 19 carries. The muscle-bound Valenzuela was particularly impressive, showing speed and cutting ability along with brute force, finding the end zone twice and eclipsing the magic 100-yard barrier. Alvarez continued to break tackles and move the chains, and he has scored 11 times.
Which leads us to the phrase that pays in seeking to explain the team’s success in 2017: adaptability.
Campbell and his staff have been expert at making adjustments on the fly, analyzing the flow of the game, and making moves to leverage the abilities of the kids.
Case in point from Thursday. Sensing that the Raiders were well aware of the SaberCat propensity for the West Coast Offense and its quick passes to the wings, the offense then pounded the ball on the ground for seven straight snaps on the second drive of the game. When Pharr North started sneaking up to the box to try and contain Valenzuela and Alvarez, Garcia flipped a touchdown pass down the right sideline to Justin Cantu for a 10-point lead a minute into the second period.
Later in the half, Vela went back to the air, Garcia completing 5 of 5 balls and finding Brandon Guzman for six at 2:15 of the quarter.
Campbell is fond of saying that the Sabes will take what you give them, and he and his colleagues are masters at seeing what is happening, and acting. Some staffs are better at preparation than in-game adjustment, but Vela’s crew appears to be first-rate at both.
Defensively, same story. Knowing that the Raiders do not have very much talent out wide on offense, the SaberCats came out in a 3-5 alignment, with outside linebackers Richard Campos and Justice Rivera close to the line and using their agility and quickness to make a combined 13 tackles in the first half alone. Against more pass-prone teams, it will be the base 3-4 look, showing that Vela is a smart football team.
The wild card: It’s one thing to see the flow and make adjustments, but a club has to have the heady horses that can make the changes and execute. This, the Sabes have, and so it’s very difficult to out-coach and out-execute them; they simply are well-drilled, adept at four-wheel drive of the brain, and able to do whatever, whenever, generally with very satisfactory results.
Now, looking ahead to Thursday’s battle with the similarly unbeaten Bears, on the road. One imagines that the quickness of the Vela defensive front will be tested by the scrambling and unique throwing style of athletic P-SJ-A QB Trey Guajardo, a very difficult guy to corral. The Sabe secondary, manned at safety by the Brothers Enriquez, will be running all night, meaning the corners will also be on the main stage.
The Vela offensive line, which has risen from relative name-obscurity to become a well-oiled machine, will also be on display. If the Sabes win the trench battle, they will probably also capture the war for first place.
It might come down to special teams and big plays, areas where Campbell’s crew thrives. Garza is a college kicker in the making, consistent and confident now to go alongside Tate Scott, an able directional punter. Will the difference-maker end up being one of the Enriquez Bros? Daniel returned an interception for a score Thursday, and the Sabes are beginning to remind one of the Harlingen Cardinals of recent vintage with their alacrity in turning turnovers and kicks into quick, momentum-burgeoning touchdowns.
Thursday’s going to be hot in the Tri Cities as the league’s two best units come face to face. One of them is going to end the evening in second place – that much is certain. The betting man would be well advised to think twice about letting it all ride against the Blue and Black, says here.
NOTES: Vela kept its lead in the all-RGV scoring race, and has now amassed 358 points in eight games. The defense has been lights-out the last three outings, allowing just 14 points and for the year gives just 14.6 ppg. The Bears come in averaging 39 ppg, by the way.