There was a prevailing tendency in town to believe that the Vela mantra heading into this one was: revenge, redemption, and an emotional regroup. This after last week’s distressing loss at home to McAllen Memorial, which ended a long and glorious streak of success against Valley teams.
But John Campbell, after his squad put a superb effort together in clobbering Los Fresnos Thursday, explained that the narrative in the run-up was none of the above.
“Not taking anything away from any our opponents, but in reality it was all about us,” the coach said after the SaberCats hammered their way to a victory that was more dominant than the final margin might indicate. “Not to sound too much like Nick Saban, either, but it was really about just honoring the process, doing what any team needs to at this time of year, which is just get better every week. So was this about redemption, no, it was just about not losing sight of what we are trying to do.”
Campbell added that his young and talented team, coming off one of the few subpar performances he has seen during his fantastic two-plus seasons at the helm, is attempting to deal with the past in the right way.
“We do have a tradition here of excellence and that is a big burden on the shoulders of a lot of new kids,” he mused. “We had the streak going, all that, but really we were just concentrating on improvement, and I think tonight we did a good job of just playing football the way we know how.”
At first it seemed like a carryover from Memorial was under way, as Los Fresnos pulled off a fake punt gamble for a stunning 82-yard touchdown on the first series of the night. That sort of special teams blunder, uncharacteristic in previous seasons but becoming a semi-issue so far in 2019 – Memorial ran the opening kick back for six in the prior contest – was mitigated somewhat when Ivan Mendoza broke in to block yet another kick, on the extra point try.
Later the Sabes had a tremendous kickoff return for six by Jaime Perez nullified but here, we note that special teams performance is something that develops as a unit gains experience. Something to work on.
That play by Mendoza was huge, actually, mojo-wise, because from there, the Sabes relaxed and quickly looked very much like past incarnations.
In two plays after the kickoff and a personal foul call on the Falcons (1-3), the offense was in the end zone, thanks to a 23-yard run from elusive sophomore P.J. Rivera, who followed a 100-yard effort against Memorial with 76 in 10 carries Thursday. Rivera then made it 14-6 at 5:42 of the first after a fine 41-yard spiral from junior A.J. Sotelo to senior Justin Cantu set the table.
The Sabes later drove to a field goal attempt, but two motion calls nullified the three points each time and the third try went awry. Special teams again not that special.
Los Fresnos spent the evening on the ground with its misdirection Flex Bone attack, and made it to the Vela 25 in the second period before junior DL Raul Guajardo chipped in with three tackles to stymie the march. His contribution –chase speed from the backside stood out – along with that of linemate Chris Ramos (the pair combined for 14 stops) was a welcome thing, as the line has spent the prior three games in relative anonymity. Other note: the underclass crew that is so highly touted boasted five of the six leading tacklers on the night.
After that stop, Vela crunched out a 75-yard drive for a 21-6 lead at 4:26, most of the damage being done by senior Kevin McKinney, who missed the Mustang loss but returned in style with 119 yards on 14 trips. Breaking tackles and showing the cuts and acceleration the team so urgently needed this season with the graduation loss of its 2018 backfield, McKinney benefited from gaping holes from a retooled Vela line, and the results were most pleasing, the Sabes collecting 214 rushing yards. The attack had rushed for just 203 yards through three tilts heading into the Los Fresnos bout.
By halftime it was 28-6, after Sotelo (8 of 11, 146 yards) connected with sophomore Justin Vega on a 35-yard score late in the quarter.
Outside of the 82-yard surprise, the Falcons generated just 57 more yards in the half and that trend continued after intermission. Aside from gains of 47 and 52 in the half, the Falcons – who attempted a totally That ‘70s Offense total of two passes the whole night – were largely held in check.
The offense produced another score, its fifth in six possessions to that point, with a 7-play, 69-yard foray to begin the third. Rivera slipped out of the backfield on an abbreviated wheel route to catch a 9-yard scoring flip from Sotelo at 8:50 to cap a march begun by a 35-yard burst from the speedy and powerful McKinney. High five to No. 22 … or make that 27, do the math.
Los Fresnos bolted for a 47-yard gain and soon narrowed the gap to 35-12, and the visitor added a garbage TD with a minute left but truly the Sabes were cruising by halftime in this one, decidedly Vela-ish in their focus, precision, and big-play capability.
Next up is the start of the 31-6A slog, as Friday marks Homecoming at school and a date with rival Edinburg North at Richard R. Flores Stadium. Campbell’s crew, not worrying about Memorial, simply got back down to business Thursday, producing the sort of exploits that they and the fan base have gotten used to in the past five seasons or so.
Sometimes it takes the occasional defeat – without excessive hand-wringing or garment-rending – to help a program stay humble and hungry. Mission, as they say, accomplished.