MCALLEN – One by one, the worthy challengers stride forth to take their shot at the Valley’s No. 1 football team. And one after the other, they get carried out on their shield. The latest puncher was Memorial, with a superb record as one of the area’s best clubs over the past 15 years, and though the Mustangs landed some shots, they could not stay in the ring for the distance, getting socked 40-21 Friday night.

Continuing their strong start to 2018, the Sabes (3-0) took advantage of turnovers, had superior special teams play, and connected on a couple of long bombs for scores. And they showed their mettle as champions at several key junctures. One came in the third quarter after the club had given away a pair of fumbles that led to 14 Memorial points and a slim 23-21 advantage for Vela.

Coach John Campbell’s squad responded smartly, answering with a sweet 13-play, 75-yard drive to make it 30-21. Stellar senior Daniel Enriquez, who electrified the misty night early on with a 61-yard TD catch in the game’s opening stretch, came up big on the money march with a diving third-down sideline catch for a first down. With burly Aaron Alvarez (56 yards, seven tries) getting involved in the attack, Vela moved to the cushion scratch, courtesy of a heady play from sophomore QB A.J. Sotelo (164 yards passing).

Having been bashed from the blind side a few times already, Sotelo got out of a third jam on 3rd down from the 7, shaking the rush and stepping up in the pocket to find tight end Nico Rodriguez, who had come free. Six points at 0:15 of the third, and later the Sabes added a field goal from Tate Scott, his second from 45 yards out on the night. They finished the statement road triumph four minutes into the fourth, when Sotelo sailed a perfect pass to a streaking Azael Garcia for a 43-yard clinching score.

In between the lightning moments, the Vela defense showed why it is a unit to be counted on, stopping Memorial three times on potential marches. The first came in the opening half with the Sabes up, 13-6. The Mustangs, riding the athletic tandem of Sean Skaugen and Campbell Speights, got to the Vela 30 before a host of Blue and Black defenders, paced by agile tackle Brandon Beebe, stuffed a run on fourth down. Late in the half the ‘Stangs were rolling again until Ivan Mendoza broke in to block a field goal.

The third such defensive gem came in the second half, when the game was decided. But the fact that linebacker Ian Ochoa and the gang could halt the last Memorial gasp at the Sabe 9 was just a real nice signature sequence. Ochoa, who ruled the roost with 12 tackles Friday, noted the unit’s team concept with its back against the wall.

“We didn’t worry about it because we know the offense is going to score,” said the burly sticker of the two fumbles that allowed Memorial to get close in the third. “And we know our defense is going to stop teams more often than not. We just stay together as one, we know every teammate has our back, so we play with a lot of confidence.”

Sophomore Mendoza was one of the cats who benefited from the support from teammates, as he collected eight tackles and an interception; beaten for the bomb early, as Memorial tied it at 6-6 directly after Enriquez’ opening salvo, Mendoza rebounded to have a fine night. That kind of resilience and learning from the young bucks will stand the Sabes in good stead as they look to next week’s road test at Los Fresnos, and beyond to defense of their 31-6A title, which begins soon enough.

For the game, Vela collected 330 total yards as Cristian Flores led with 78 rushing yards and Enriquez had 112 on five catches plus 50 steps on the ground. The D surrendered 298, took the three turnovers, and answered the bell every time it got narrow in the second half. Senior Frankie Zuniga had a key pass rush to disrupt a Memorial attempt, and later ran a mile from the backside to pick off a Mustang pass inside the 10.

Campbell suggested that his kids had passed one of the many tests he and his staff have posed for the No. 1 team.

“One of the keys tonight was that when they got close, we scored on a 75-yard drive,” he said. “That gave us a chance to be more aggressive, keep it wide open. Getting the cushion back, to a 9-point lead and then 12, it allowed us to do the things we wanted, because sometimes when it’s too close, it keeps you from calling some of the things you want to use.”

The second-year coach lauded young Sotelo for the progress he has made in his first duty in a varsity starting role, and added that as always the Sabes dominated in special teams.

“I think that is a vastly underrated thing, in high school football, to get blocked kicks,” he commented. “And to have Tate come out here and kick two long field goals, well, that helped us a lot tonight.”