The night began with people preparing for a possible delve into the nebulous world of positive points and tie-breaker scenarios, but the Cougars would eventually put the lie to that three-way tie drama with a workmanlike demolition of Econ. The 33-8 victory on a fresh Thursday evening all but clinched a playoff spot for North (3-2 in District 31-6A, 3-6 overall), eliminated the Jags (1-5, 2-8) from contention, and virtually ended the chances of EHS claiming the fourth and final postseason berth.
Coach Damian Gonzalez, in his second season at the helm of North, was happy with the result against the Jags, and what it symbolized to him.
“We got it, looks like we’re in,” he smiled, after getting two special-teams touchdowns to win for the third time in four outings. “These guys have been working for a year and a half to reach this point, and it feels good to have made it into the playoffs. They can see that what we have been doing are things that worked in the past at this school. And we wanted to try and get them working again, so we’re pretty pleased with what we have accomplished.”
It was not a gem of an offensive night as Econ – reprising its performance against EHS a couple of weeks back – stumbled into a big deficit but showed signs of life, finishing with 250 total yards to 260 for the Coogs.
But mistakes killed the Orange Thursday, in the key moments. The first came late in the first period of a scoreless ball game, when a faulty rugby-style punt caromed into the arms of linebacker J.J. Rodriguez, who delightedly scooted 10 yards into the end zone for a 7-0 lead. North had begun the game with a good drive, reaching the Jag 15 before losing a fumble. The Coogs then had to fend off a nice Econ march, the stop keyed by a fourth-down pass breakup from Moises Maldonado, the star of the game for North with 12 tackles, a fumble recovery TD, and an interception. Sergio Quintanilla had pinned the Jags back on their own 3 to set up the ill-fated line-drive punt that Rodriguez – he’s contemplating an offer to play college football in Kansas next year – capitalized on.
Later North gained a 10-0 advantage when the quick feet of QB Michael Rodriguez produced a 32-yard run that set up a 35-yard field goal from Christopher Villarreal in the second period. The Coogs then benefited from the second aforementioned special-teams blockbuster when a punt snap sailed over the Jag kicker’s head, 36 yards into the end zone, where Maldonado, who has been tremendous since switching sides of the ball, eventually corralled it for a 17-0 lead that held up into halftime. That Maldonado score was actualized after Quintanilla punted down to the 17 to make the Jags work from deep in their own end.
Econ has had its moments this season and regrouped after the break to cruise downfield led by runs of 10, 10, and 14 by elusive sophomore Fermin Hernandez (117 yards Thursday). But a holding call stunted the growth and a few passes did not hit the mark, North taking over at its own 25.
This season has been a process for Gonzalez and the Coogs, and they have made some switches and innovations, including Maldonado at safety and junior Ricky Garza starting to see time at both WR and safety. And it also includes a Hammer Package with two rugged blocking backs (Robert Ortiz and Carlos Diaz) in front of runner Jacob Peralez, which worked well against the Jags. Yet another new item in recent weeks has been bringing WR Brandon Borrego in tight, where he can use his strength to block … and also to sneak out into the open on occasion, which he did early in the fourth, hauling in a 28-yard floater from Rodriguez to make it 23-0.
After another Villarreal field goal, Econ rallied, going eight plays to its first score, thanks to a 46-yard bomb from junior Nathan Garcia to Ronnie Rios that preceded a 2-yard burst from the pin-balling Hernandez at 4:38 of the end.
In the late stages now and North came relentlessly back with Peralez (120 yards in another solid night of explosion and head-knocking) carving in from the 4 to make the final 33-8. North gained 230 yards on the ground, its highest total of the season, ahead of the 208 it amassed against McAllen High in a non-district contest. The Coogs completed but two passes, although one was the TD previously chronicled, and they got some hustle plays to account for 14 big points.
Along with Maldonado, Rodriguez (12 tackles) was excellent while Malachi Ortega made nine stops and teammates Raul Gonzalez (INT off a tipped ball) and Javier Renteria (five hits, a fumble recovery) also made waves. The unit has worked admirably, going most of the way without prospect Aurelio Lozano and star DB Eugenio Jaramillo, both of whom were knocked on the shelf by injuries earlier in the slate.
For the Jags, it has been a difficult muster in 2019 but they have plenty of quality youngsters returning and some veterans who enjoyed productive seasons. Headhunting senior DB Eliseo Vazquez (10 tackles Thursday) has been worthy of honors throughout, and linebackers Daniel Romo and junior Raul Aguiler have also been ferocious at times. Romo had nine licks and grabbed a fumble against North while corner Bryan Fernandez defended four passes successfully.
Coach Gabe Pena’s team is done for the year as it draws the last-week bye, while North can go to war against a fantastic Weslaco team this week knowing that its bi-district date is already a done deal.
NOTES: The win marked the 14th for North in 20 career outings against Econ, its fourth in succession in the Rivalry series; the Coogs took six straight over the Jags from 2008 to 2013. The Jags have now missed the postseason two years running after a fine stretch of four appearances in five seasons, starting in 2012. Their aggregate record over the past three campaigns dropped to 10-20 after the Thursday loss.
EHS could have forced a three-way tie for the third spot, had it beaten Vela by two scores Friday and had the Sabes lose to East this week. North might have found itself out on positive points, but happily for the Coogs, such a bizarre scenario did not develop, as Vela hammered the Bobcats, 56-0.