In a somber postgame huddle Thursday, he told his dejected kids to keep their heads up, get back to work, and plan on correcting mistakes with a good week of practice.
In the wake of an excruciating home loss to McAllen High, when the Bulldogs banged across the goal-line with 0:00 on the clock to win, 13-9, the words from Coach Damian Gonzalez seemed to reach the Cougars. When he told them they’d played a helluva game, they nodded, because in some ways it was true. And then the first-year mentor said they had all worked too hard to lose a game like this; the players shook their heads again.
In the aftermath of a hard-fought struggle, a game North seemed to have salted away with a great second-half drive and some inspired defensive play, the Cougar Clan had to learn the hurt, and to start getting past it.
After a scoreless first half with both teams mired in mistakes and the D’s ruling the roost, the Bulldogs (1-1) got a gimme when the Coogs fumbled it away at their own 25 on the half’s second play. After taking a 7-0 lead, though, the visitor saw North roar back to tie it, as senior Max Aguilar completed 5 of 7 passes on a 65-yard drive that ended with a 15-yard scoring ball on 3rd and 10, to Jose Cruz. Thus, at 2:17 of the third, the home side was alive and well.
Thanks to more heroics from senior Humberto Martinez – who has played All-Valley ball so far in 2018 – they took the advantage midway through the period. The snap sailed over the punter’s head and Martinez, who made 16 tackles in a Herculean effort, chased the Bulldog 28 yards into the end zone and corralled him for a safety.
On a night when neither club moved the ball consistently (the North D held the Mac to a sickly 91 yards, the North O got 195, with 10 first downs), this appeared to be an edge that would hold up.
But down the stretch, the Coogs made some errors, and they cost a ton. The harbinger came on a single play in the early fourth when they committed two infractions, a hold and an unsportsmanlike conduct. Later in the final quarter, after being pinned at their own 9, the Coogs punted out to their own 44, with 2:50 left. Immediately, another unsportsmanlike penalty stung them for 15, a defensive offside was good for five more Bulldog steps.
Soon the ‘Dogs were in the shadow of the dreaded North End Zone at Richard R. Flores Stadium, where weird and wild mysteries have been known to lurk. In the waning seconds, it looked like Mac, with a first-and-goal, was home free. But the ‘Dogs fumbled the snap and North hopped on the loose ball at 0:44. Unfortunately, the refs – an unusually busy bunch Thursday – had whistled McAllen for an illegal snap, effectively nullifying the game-winning defensive stop.
Still there was hope, as it became apparent that the Bulldogs, having experienced snap and hold troubles, did not want to try a potentially winning field goal, even from the 5. After a motion flag, Coach Kevin Brewer rolled the dice at 0:08 and the McAllen runner burst through multiple tacklers and emerged in the end zone as time ran out.
A very disheartening denouement, indeed.
“We just need to finish, and we have talked about that,” said Gonzalez after the defeat. “Four quarters, we didn’t do it and we have to be able to. Defense was lights-out tonight and Max got hot there in the third period, we definitely want to run the ball better than we did tonight. The main thing, we have to keep our heads up and keep working. It will come, I know it will and the kids do too. But this is a very tough loss.”
The Coogs had a shot early after McAllen inexplicably faked a punt on 4th and 21 and did not come close. But two plays into their first possession of the game, from the McAllen 30, came a North turnover. Late in the half the Coogs, who held the enemy to a single first down in the half, got to the Mac High 38 before the half ended with a sack.
Aguilar, who was a solid 17 for 31 for 167 yards, led the march that netted the tie, and again, when he is on, the kid can flat wing the ball. Roel de Leon (seven catches) was the main target, while Aguilar got flex end Brandon Borrego into the action and also utilized his options out of the backfield.
The run game was stopped cold, gaining just 32 yards on 20 carries, but luckily North’s defense was stout, allowing just 60 yards rushing on 36 McAllen tries, and surrendering just 31 passing yards. Besides the terrific end Martinez, the Coogs got splendid effort from linemen Josue Martinez and Seth Villarreal, who combined for 15 tackles; those two have been excellent through two starts, giving North one of the top fronts in the league.
McAllen schemed to take Jacob Alvarado away but this allowed LB Juan Rodriguez to come up with seven stops and a sack. The secondary, scorched in last week’s three-point loss to Mercedes, was worlds better, led by the outstanding coverage of corner Isaac Bernal, who defensed five passes, and backfield mates Ivan Garza and rising soph Malachai Ortega, who made 12 tackles between them.
So now it is Rowe, as the Warriors come calling this week. At 0-2, the Coogs are not panicking but they are good and mad at themselves for letting one slip away.
“If it hurts, it should,” said Gonzalez to his subdued team. “We just can’t commit that many penalties, we can’t play behind the chains, we have to be in front … We’ve seen glimpses of what we can do, so now let’s back to business, come out next week and play four quarters.”