UNBEATEN JUGGERNAUT WESTLAKE AWAITS
LAREDO – All it took was a little more consistency, for a return to what had gotten them to this point, so the Sabes inhaled a deep collective breath and went to the rock pile, hardhats in hand.
The result was a solid 28-10 victory here Friday afternoon, with Vela dispatching a game Eagle Pass club, rising from the near ashes of the bi-district nail-biter, and advancing into the Rare Air of the state playoffs. The 12-0 SaberCats now face a tall order indeed, a matchup against one of the most storied programs in Friday Night Lights lore, Austin Westlake, also 12-0 in 2017.
Heading into the regional quarterfinal at Gregory-Portland Friday, the Sabes know that they’ve gotten their act back together, more than less. Following a poor performance against Hanna, they weathered 10 penalties on a bright and sunny afternoon out west, making more than enough plays to win the day and the right to compete in the third round for the second time in three seasons.
Paramount on this day: two championship drives bookending halftime. Down 10-7 in the second, the Sabes marched 78 yards in 12 snaps to retake the lead with a 9-yard pass from Nate Garcia to Justin Cantu at 3:31. Then, to begin the third period, they were off again, rolling 71 yards on another sharp excursion of a dozen plays, Garcia scooting in from the 2 at 6:48. From there, Coach John Campbell’s crew turned up the defensive pressure, salting away a fine triumph before a large and active Edinburg-heavy crowd.
Cantu was one of the stars of the day, recovering from a shutout versus Hanna to catch a program-record 12 balls, for 127 yards. The strapping sophomore tormented the Eagle Pass corners for the duration, snaring four balls on the second-period march and three on the second notable drive. Garcia completed 21 of 33 balls and scored twice on the ground, leading the team in the playoffs like a warrior must. He is now the program leader for passing yards in a single season, besting the likes of Fabian Pedraza and Ebher Lopez with a 2017 output of 2,565 yards.
The ground game collected 151 yards against Eagle Pass and once again, the Enriquez Brothers were clutch. Nick came up with 10 tackles and a forced fumble that brother Daniel recovered, while Daniel also intercepted his sixth pass of the season. Once Vela assumed a 21-10 edge in the third, senior Tim Ellington took a star turn with three straight tackles (two sacks) on the ensuing possession, and Eagle Pass (9-3) faded in the wearying sun.
Determined to make up for the first round squeaker, the Sabes were solid in all phases, as punter Tate Scott consistently pinned the Eagles and even produced a first down off a fake punt run, though it was nullified by a flag. That was the main eh from a creditable performance, as Vela jumped offside five times on offense en route to a 10-violation game. Heroic kicker Austin Garza, who won the testy Hanna tilt with a memorable 54-yard field goal near the final gun, hooked his only try wide Friday but did a masterful job on kickoffs. Fellow senior Brandon Guzman made a strong kick return across midfield as once again Vela held the special teams edge.
Linebacker Ian Ochoa rebounded with a terrific 13-tackle outing to lead the D while Justice Rivera churned to a sack and a half and corner Bryly Medina located a fumble recovery to aid the charge.
Vela did not turn the ball over and bounced back from deficits of 3-0 and 10-7 to win going away, setting up a mammoth task against Westlake. The last RGV highest-class team to score a third-round success was Harlingen (over San Antonio Warren) in 2011. But the locals are undaunted.
“We just had to make some adjustments and come out and take the game,” said Nick Enriquez, whose senior leadership has been vital in the recent run; he was a tackling machine by necessity in 2016 but with many other kids coming to the fore this season, he has not had to carry a total load. “We had to hit them in the mouth and start to dominate in the second half. Now, we have Westlake and hey, we know they’re pretty tough … but any team can be beaten, we believe that.”
The 6A DII Regional Semifinals are set for Friday Dec. 1 at Akins Stadium in Portland, Texas. Kick off is 7:30 p.m.