The week everyone has been waiting for has arrived, as the run for the District 31-6A roses starts Thursday and continues the next night. Right off the bat, city clubs will square off in the annual Rivalry Week, with Vela and North getting it on Thursday and EHS taking on Econ Friday.
The Cougars head into district with a new helmsman, as sophomore Izaiah Rangel has taken over injured Frankie Zuniga. The good thing about the forced switch is that Rangel has been working at the position since the spring and has been a QB in the past. That, and he had a scintillating debut last week against Harlingen South with 160 rushing yards and two breakaway scores.
North Coach Rene Saenz mused about the unfolding of the story, expressing regret for Zuniga first and foremost.
“It’s a tough break for sure, hate to see it,” Saenz said. “Frankie might be able to make it back before the season ends. On the other hand, Za’ has been wanting to take his shot, too, and now he is in there.”
North will try and maximize the talented soph’s abilities while minimizing the relative lack of varsity experience under center.
“Vela will probably load the box and try and make him throw, that’s certainly what I would do,” he commented. “The bye week is working out well for us so we can figure out what we want to do. We’re getting healthy about now, especially on the O-line where we get Rick Cerda back, so that will definitely help.”
As the district season starts, perhaps the part of the North drill that more of a question mark early on – the defense – has become a standout unit in recent weeks. Saenz’ rebuilt crew shut down South, limiting the Hawks to a single score, and the coach says that he had a feeling the D would come through sooner than later despite heavy graduation losses.
“There is a group that has no standouts in the highlights,” he explained. “But they play for each other, you can see it out there, it’s a pretty tight group of kids and they did a nice job last week.”
That surprising cast will have its hands full Thursday, as Vela (3-0) comes in averaging more than 41 ppg. The SaberCats do not seem to have skipped a beat despite a coaching change and a couple of transfers off the attack squad. Having a fine senior leader igniting the charge helps quite a lot and in senior Nate Garcia, Coach John Campbell has a proven winner who has ridden the rapids, a guy who can sling it or keep it with equal excellence.
Still, the more the Sabes can get out of their running back committee, the better it is for the health and welfare of the slender Garcia. Against Edcouch he showed he can go to the house with a second-half TD run that helped jumpstart the comeback win, but keeping him in the action has to be paramount because there are few better.
North got the best of the Sabes in two clashes back in the day, with the Sabes cruising past the Coogs last year in the former’s return to the 6A ranks.
JAGS-‘CATS TO BRAWL
The other Rivalry Game comes a day later when EHS takes on Econ, reprising a war that goes back to 2000 when the Jags first started the pigskin parade. The East Side boys had won three in a row in the series before the Bobcats got even last season, leaving the latter in charge of the overall series, 9-5.
Coach J.J. Leija’s bunch (1-2) got off the ziggy in its last contest, beating Palmview, while the Jags were walloped pretty soundly by a scary Weslaco East contingent and so advance into the fray at 2-1.
The bye week has been helpful for the Jags as it has given them time to regroup and recover, although it’s unsure whether runner Sonny Castillo – who looked very sound in leading the team in yards in the opener – will be back from a calf injury. If not, Econ will throw shifty Lee Maldonado and banger Gabriel Ornelas at the ‘Cats, with scatback Jeremy Fernandez beginning to get some touches on misdirection calls. He has some wheels and can get to the edge, with Ornelas hitting the pile in the middle and Maldonado looking for cutback lanes where he can find them.
For the Bobcats, the run game is a plus, with Hearlin Benavides off to a terrific start during non-district. The club has been playing both quarterbacks through three games and may continue to do that because both junior Matt Cruz and senior Danny Shawnee have had positive stretches.