MISSION — Mission Veterans and Mr. Texas Football 2018 Landry Gilpin captivated South Texas football fans last year as the Patriots became the first football team from the Rio Grande Valley to reach the fourth round of the playoffs in seven years.

After a four-year varsity career, Gilpin’s gone, but the 2019 Patriots aren’t worried about losing a step. They’re only focused on moving forward.

“We’ve kept the ball rolling,” senior linebacker Mike Rodriguez said. “Tradition doesn’t graduate.”

The biggest question surrounding this year’s group is how they intend to replace Gilpin’s 4,544 passing yards, 2,112 rushing yards, and 82 total touchdowns from a year ago.

“Everyone thinks that just because Landry is gone, we’re going to flop, but it’s next man up. You have to be ready for everything, and I think we’re prepared,” senior receiver Mikey Garcia said.

And the next players up for the defending District 16-5A DI champion Patriots are ready to take the reins.

Mission Veterans returns four starters on the offensive side of the ball, led by all-state receivers Garcia and AJ Gonzaque and senior running back Danny Cantu.

In 2017, Garcia had 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns on 78 catches as a sophomore. And despite battling hamstring injuries during his junior season, he posted 765 yards and nine touchdowns in just nine games.

Gonzaque, a sophomore, totaled 1,493 yards and 15 touchdowns on 75 catches last year, while running back Danny Cantu finished the year with 1,035 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns.

“I think our offense is electrifying,” Gonzaque said. “Danny Cantu will run it down your mouth. When you see that safety coming down, Mikey will beat you with the speed. And if you play me 1-on-1 and throw the jump ball, I feel like I’ll get it most of the time.”

Filling Gilpin’s shoes in Mission Veterans’ up-tempo spread attack is sophomore quarterback Ricky Reyna. Reyna showed off his skills in the Patriots’ first scrimmage against Sharyland Pioneer as he threw four touchdown passes, three of which went deep to Gonzaque.

Head coach David Gilpin knew there’d be doubters of his program and new quarterback, but he was proud of how he fared in his first test at the varsity level.

“Ricky answered his first test as I’ve told everybody he would. The only question for Ricky is how fast would he adapt to the speed of the game on a Friday night. That’s the only one,” David Gilpin said. “This is a quality quarterback, man. Yes, we lost a good one, but we got another good one right here. Yes, we graduated a good football team, but we got another good one right here. It’s good to see these guys feeling good about themselves.”

After his first throw landed short and his second throw sailed out of bounds, Reyna found his groove and had the Mission Veterans offense looking awfully similar to last year’s high-powered attack.

“It took a good two plays to get the nerves out, but after that it just felt comfortable. I felt like it was my game,” Reyna said. “The sky’s the limit. We have so much talent surrounding us.”

And while Patriots remain confident in their offense, the defense is eager to show what it can do.

The defense returns three of the team’s top tacklers from 2018 in Rodriguez (112 tackles, 3 sacks), linebacker Jesse Gonzalez (122 tackles, 4 forced fumbles) and defensive back Mike Gonzalez (92 tackles).

“We’re some blue dogs out there,” Mike Gonzalez said. “We’ll tackle anything out there, size, speed doesn’t matter.”

Mission Veterans is slated to open the regular season against Mission High in “The Battle of Conway” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Tom Landry Stadium.

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