GARZA'S LAST-SECOND 54-YARD LASER SENDS SABES PAST HANNA IN BI-DISTRICT BRAWL, EAGLE PASS NEXT FOR VELA AFTER TEAM SURVIVES SUBPAR EVENING

Everyone should have known.

There went Austin Garza, bounding onto the field to try and save the night for his team in the final half-minute of an intermittently dreadful performance from the SaberCats. Skipping and then leaping, doing it again, resembling not less than a gazelle rocketing over the rocks on the African steppe, Garza was ready for it. Even when Hanna called a timeout to try and ice him, it didn’t work. The junior kicker stepped in and coolly nailed a 54-yard field goal to win the game for Vela, 34-32, sending Richard R. Flores Stadium into madcap spasms of euphoria.

In a flash, Vela had survived, after it seemed likely to suffer a repeat of last year’s surprising, horrifying last-second first round loss to Weslaco East. This time, though Vela seemingly made more mistakes in 48 minutes than it has all season, the result was victory, victory for an 11-0 squad that advances to take on Eagle Pass now, at 2 p.m. the day after Thanksgiving, out west in Laredo.

Hanna came down after the miracle boot and nearly stole it, throwing a 40-yard pass to get into range for a 53-yard field goal try. East all over again? The kick was dead on … but just short, and minutes down the road, Garza took a memorable hero’s ride on the shoulders of grateful teammates.

“I was trying to help myself get up for it,” said Garza to explain his pre-kick moves. He now has nailed a dozen field goals in 2017, including a 36-yarder earlier in the second half of a wild affair that finally went to the Sabes. “I knew it might come down to me making a kick, and I wanted to be hyped for it. I’ve made 50-yarders in practice pretty often.”

That it came down to a last-minute hero’s journey, well, that can be explained by two factors. One is the way Hanna (7-4) brought the fight to the home side from the outset, leading two different times in the first half before Vela put a 28-point explosion on the board to jump up, 28-14 at the break. With a quick and strong defensive line, the Eagles did not allow the Sabes to pound the ball; in fact, the latter’s leading rusher was quarterback Nate Garcia (98 yards). The Eagles accounted for 343 total yards, 223 of them coming on five huge gainers. Plain and simple, Hanna came to play in its first playoff action since the 32-5A title season of 2009.

The other reason for the narrow margin was also simple. Whether it was overconfidence, rust after a series of easy blowouts in 31-6A, or some other whammy, Vela just didn’t do very well. The red pen marking mistakes on the team’s chart for Friday circled at least 12 different errors, including ill-timed penalties, three turnovers, a minus-32 on a bad punt snap, and a loss of poise that led to a personal foul and ejection.

If not for Garza, curtains. He got the chance to do the nearly impossible, tying Kritsov Martinez of EHS fame for the longest field goal in city annals and winning the bi-district game in the process. If it hadn’t been for Garcia and Daniel Enriquez, the Vela goose would have been cooked for sure.

Garcia overcame his least effective passing game of the year (9 for 23, two picks) by breaking out as a runner, contributing several clutch pick-ups as the struggling Sabes attempted to fend off the hard-charging Eagles. The coaches have kept Garcia in mothballs this season to avoid losing him to injury, but Vela fans know that when he runs, Nate can go, to the tune of more than 800 yards his junior season.

As for Enriquez, let the trumpets sound to herald yet another inspired evening of work. He blocked an extra point and a field goal and found the end zone on a punt return and an interception return, continuing to provide dazzling and lethal broken-field running with the ball.

Other than that, it was fairly brutal at times.

An early INT led to a quick 7-0 Hanna lead at 10:23 of the first, the drive going oh, one play, four yards. Enriquez rambled all the way to the Eagle 19 with the ensuing kick, only to see Vela get stopped on downs at the Hanna 10. The mojo was bad from the start and as the mistakes started to pile up, one could see the SaberCat confidence start to sway uneasily in the breeze.

Next, Hanna benefited from a defensive offside call to convert a third down en route to a field goal try, which Enriquez roared in to snuff out. Surely now would be the blowout everyone half expected, as Vela marched smartly into the shadow of the Hanna goal, only to lose a fumble from the 9.

Luckily, Enriquez, the big play master later took a punt back 70 yards, zigging and zagging in his imitable way, tying the match at 7-all early in the second period.

Hanna regained the advantage on another break given by Vela. A personal foul call on third down granted the Eagles new life and they soon tallied on a pass to lead, 14-7. Distress was growing on the Vela side as nothing seemed to be going right.

But then the home boys recovered to post a champion’s drive, 11 plays worth with a 28-yard pass from Garcia to Brandon Guzman rescuing the team from a third-and-14 hole. Eventually, Aaron Alvarez banged in from the 4 to re-tie the proceedings.

At this point, though the body language was iffy and the list of miscues growing, Vela did what Vela does, and that’s score in a hurry.

Bryly Medina snared an interception off a tipped ball deep in Hanna territory inside two minutes to go in the half; a neat backside throwback to tight end Nico Rodriguez on third down gave Vela the lead.

Then, Enriquez blasted off again. With Hanna facing a third and long late in the half, the Eagles foolishly chose to throw deep, and Daniel made them pay, snagging the aerial and sprinting 30 yards for a lightning TD at 0:49. After having played so poorly for much of the half, the undefeated league champ was lucky to be up two scores. 

TIME TO SHINE?

The intermission did nothing to erase the Vela tendency for gaffes, however. The first drive of the third period produced a sack, a holding penalty, and the aforementioned 32-yard loss on a punt snap. It took resilient Hanna three plays to cut the margin to eight from the Vela 17. Would the nightmare ever lift? Not yet.

After Garcia hit Azael Garcia for a 49-yard gain – one of the few big shots the Sabes came up with against an effective Cover 2 scheme manned by fast safeties and tall, agile corners – the team was in position to reassert itself. Until losing a fumble in the Red Zone, that is. Every time they looked ready to return to being them, they didn’t. It was mystifying to see a team that had been almost perfect all season, poised and consistent, have so much trouble shaking off the cobwebs.

The Eagles generated another TD late in the third but after having missed the PAT on their third score, decided to go for two to tie it. They didn’t make it, 28-26 Vela with 0:32 left in the third.

Trying to find ways to run against the Hanna defense, Vela managed to carve out a three-pointer from Garza at 8:59, but then the Eagles’ QB broke a tackle at the line on a 45-yard run down to the 6. The visitor took the lead back for the third time, 32-31 at 5:11 of the night. Once again, they tried for two and got none.

This seemed to be the key moment of the game, a No.1 seed and heavy favorite playing at home against a No. 4, yet in danger of a playoff choke for the second season running. When Garcia was sacked and injured, doom started to creep in. Tate Scott rifled a superb 62-yard punt down to the Hanna 10, and it was up to the D to get a stop, and give the O another chance at redemption. Hanna achieved one first down and then punted away, and Garcia was back, running the 2-minute drill in what he hoped would not end up being his last high school action. It wasn’t. Nate skated for an absolutely enormous 24-yard gain with 1:00 to go. But from the Hanna 36, Vela threw two incompletes and lost a yard by run.

Nothing left to do but put the season on the shoulders of one of the roster’s original free spirits. Garza, a star on the Vela soccer team, lined up for the most important free kick of his life. And he made it, right down the middle, with room to spare, at least five yards of it.

“I was just trying to hit it as hard as I could,” he calmly related after the game. And that is what he did.

In the unreal atmosphere following a once-in-a-lifetime comeback, some of the Sabes spoke their piece about the up-down, topsy turvy nature of the playoff win.

“I mean, we worked hard, we practiced well, but then we just didn’t come out hard at first,” said linebacker Luis Gutierrez. “But we did get it together. I guess people said we haven’t been tested for awhile, and now we have been and we’re ready to move on. Hanna came out swinging, no doubt about that, and we just had to fight back.”

Offensive lineman Julio Coello, he of the Salt and Pepper OT tag team with teammate Jayden Borjas, suggested that the SaberCats got through the test with good old-fashioned teamwork.

“We had to get our unity back intact, for awhile there we sort of lost it,” said the massive tackle, who also noted that before the game, on the short bus ride over, he had told kicker Garza that the team was “going to need his field goals tonight.”

Even the coaches were shaking their heads at how crazy Friday was. John Campbell, the coach who has led to Sabes to 11 straight wins now, said that one of the gaffes during the bi-district win was on the coaches.

“I have to own that, that one’s on me,” he said, speaking of the moment when, before Scott’s long punt, Vela had to burn its second time out of the second half when it failed to get the punt team on the field in time. Ended up not killing the win.

Overall, the coach knows that his team did not play well, and he noted that perhaps the Sabes – after winning their seven league contests by an average of 36 points – were a bit rusty. He also lauded Hanna for being a very difficult foe.

Nonetheless, they are moving on, sobered by the tremors of a near disaster but confident that they will come out in Laredo Friday and play their game, presenting vastly superior effort and poise for the area rounder with a solid Eagle Pass bunch. One doesn’t get two Mulligans in the same golf tournament, it has to be said. This has to be the only hiccup, the gotcha that thankfully got away. There cannot be another, because in the second round, history dictates almost without exception, a bad start will get one’s carcass flat hammered.

SCOUTING REPORT

Eagle Pass wasted McAllen last week, 52-21, rising to 9-2 for the year. The Eagles are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, when they lost to Edinburg North in bi-district for the second year in a row. They also matched up with EHS back in 1999, losing to a magical Bobcat team that churned to the state semis. Eagle Pass is 5-8 lifetime against Valley teams.

In 2017 their losses have come to Medina Valley by 1 in the season opener and then to Laredo United, 45-14; they topped District 29-5A and have taken three in a row since the United setback. The Eagles average 32 ppg and allow 18 ppg.

Vela completed the second undefeated regular season in school history, following 2015’s accomplishment, and now has a shot to reach the third round for the second time, also duplicating the feat by the 2015 bunch that barely lost to Vandegrift in the regional quarters. The total of 514 points posted through 11 tilts has nudged past the 513 scored by the 2014 bunch, but this year’s crew will have to go a ways to match the 602-point explosion of 2015.

Looming in the wings should Vela defeat Eagle Pass: the winner of a powerhouse second-round clash between Austin Westlake and Smithson Valley. Perennial juggernaut Westlake is 11-0 with a victory over highly ranked Lake Travis on its resume, and this is the best Chaparral unit since the state finalist of 2015. Smithson Valley has regained its lofty peak of the past several seasons after an 8-3 showing in 2016. The Rangers are 10-1 with their only loss coming to Clemens, 16-10. They did score a terrific 40-37 OT win against state-ranked Judson later in the slate, however.