McALLEN — With his team ahead by just a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a heated rivalry game, McAllen Rowe senior quarterback James Gamez knew he had to make a play to keep his team in the contest.

The Warriors’ senior signal-caller took a direct snap out of the shotgun before faking a handoff to running back Lorenzo Lopez and making a beeline toward the home sideline where his teammates were waving him on.

Gamez eluded a few Bulldog defenders, tiptoed down the sideline and dove for the near pylon fighting through a tackler to fall forward into the end zone. The 65-yard scramble, the squad’s fifth rushing touchdown of the night, helped Rowe expand its lead and stave off a late surge from the crosstown rival McAllen High Bulldogs to earn Rowe a hard-fought 38-31 victory to move into first place in District 16-5A DI’s west zone Monday night at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium.

“It’s a McHi-Nikki Rowe football game, which means it was always going to be a battle to the end. I just want to tip my hat off to our guys and our coaching staff as well as the McAllen Bulldogs because they’re a tough, tough team,” McAllen Rowe Warriors head football coach Bobby Flores said. “Coach (Patrick) Shelby and his staff do an incredible job. I’m proud of our effort, though. It seemed like we had to fight until the bitter end in this one and the last game as well, it’s been that kind of year so far. We told the boys coming into this one, ‘Four quarters is what it’s going to take.’ In our zone over here, you better bring it every game. Any team can beat anybody.”

“Our kids fought extremely hard tonight and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. They showed a lot of toughness, a lot of determination and fought through lots of adversity and different obstacles throughout the game,” McHi Bulldogs head football coach Patrick Shelby said. “They played a full four quarters of football. Everything we talked to them about all week long was, ‘This is going to be a four-quarter ballgame, we’ve got to sustain some blows and create some blows. They did that tonight.”

McHi Hunter Curl (16) tries to escape the grasp of Nikki Rowe defender Yahir Garcia (23) during the first half of a District 16-5A D1 football game at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020 in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

Gamez’s score was the first Rowe touchdown of the night not scored by senior running back Nick Meehan, who along with fellow senior back Lorenzo Lopez ran all over the Bulldogs.

The Warriors coughed the ball up on a strip-sack fumble on their opening drive of the game, which led to a quick McHi score after taking over on the edge of the red zone, but it was all about the backfield tandem of Lopez and Meehan for the remainder of the first half offensively.

Meehan gave Rowe its first lead of the night about 9 minutes into the first quarter after back-to-back short touchdown runs. The Warriors’ senior would score his third straight unanswered touchdown of the first half when he found the end zone for the third time early in the second.

“We were able to get a good mixture of guys (with) the ball. And our offensive line played well too, I can’t forget about those guys,” Flores said. “They’re the ones that grind upfront, so they’re the ones who were able to open up some holes for Nick and Lorenzo and also our quarterbacks who came in there and had some big runs.”

Meehan’s banner day on the ground helped Rowe carry a 24-10 advantage into halftime after turnovers and defense helped define the second quarter, as each side was held to a field goal.

Nikki Rowe Nicolas Meehan (25) is tackled by McHi defenders Carlos Ochoa (2) and teammates during the first half of a District 16-5A D1 football game at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020 in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

But the Bulldogs came out firing on all cylinders in the second half. Despite fumbling on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, the McHi defense held firm and forced the Warriors into settling for two more field goal attempts, one of which went through the uprights.

McHi’s stingy defense actually held the Warriors’ offense in check for much of the third quarter, blocking a punt, forcing an interception, securing two fumble recoveries and coming up with several timely defensive stops to keep the team within striking distance of reclaiming the lead.

“The defense started fast and created multiple turnovers in the first half. We executed and capitalized on one of them, but in a situation like that when you get turnovers, you’ve got to be able to capitalize on those things,” Shelby said. “We didn’t get them when we needed to, but we’ll get better and continue to get better.”

Led by sophomore quarterback Hunter Curl, the McHi offense marched downfield to score in several marquee moments without the team’s two leading receivers. Instead, Curl continued to prolong drives by picking up first downs in critical situations with his feet while spreading the ball around to receivers Caleb Killian, Noah Villarreal and Noah Barboza as well as running back Danny Cazares.

Curl found the end zone for a second time after scoring on a QB keeper on the Bulldogs’ initial possession of the night. He also hit Villarreal for a long 45-yard passing touchdown midway through the fourth quarter and handed off to Cazares, who scored McHi’s fourth touchdown of the night to make it a one-possession game with about 3 minutes left in regulation.

McHi Josh Perez (84) misses a catch in front of Nikki Rowe defender Yahir Garcia (23) during the first half of a District 16-5A D1 football game at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020 in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

The McHi defense held long enough to give Curl and the offense one more chance to drive nearly the length of the field, about 64 yards, in 77 seconds with no timeouts remaining.

The Bulldogs pushed all the way down the edge of Rowe’s red zone, but after having to kill two downs to spike the ball and stop the clock, a pass to the back corner of the end zone with 10 seconds to go fell incomplete to seal the Warriors’ second straight victory after back-to-back losses to start the season.

For McHi, it’s the team’s third narrow defeat in four games and the second time the Bulldogs’ fate has been determined on the final offensive possession of the game.

“I tip my hat off to (our offensive and defensive coordinators). Any time we’re working out or running drills, they’re extending it saying, ‘We’ve got to finish; we’ve got to finish practice strong.’ I think that’s paid dividends here knowing that every series is important,” Flores said.

“It shows how bad they really want to win and the willpower they have to continue to push each other game after game, especially when we get in certain situations where we have to fight back. We’ve shown that all year multiple times and I couldn’t be more proud of them, their hard work and everything they’re doing for the program,” Shelby said.

The Rowe Warriors will return to action when they travel to face District 16-5A DI rival Donna High (1-1, 1-0) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, while the McHi Bulldogs will play their regular-season finale against Donna High on Thursday, Nov. 19.

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch