Edinburg High's Emmanuel Duron is held back by teammate Anthony Cardona after Duron charged a referee in a 31-6A zone play-in game against PSJA High at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

EDINBURG — The Edinburg High Bobcats and PSJA High Bears met Thursday night at Richard R. Flores Stadium to play a win-or-go-home District 31-6A zone play-in game that started off with a frenetic pace.

But the moment was bittersweet for the Bobcats, who lost their best defensive player during a 35-21 victory over PSJA High to advance to the Class 6A Division I playoffs, after an ugly moment during the first half threatened to derail the entire game.

Edinburg High senior defensive end Emmanuel Duron, the team’s star defender, was flagged on a play early during the second quarter after he shoved an opposing offensive lineman to the ground and attempted to make a tackle on PSJA High freshman quarterback Jaime Lopez after the whistle had blown the play dead.

Edinburg High against PSJA High in a 31-6A zone play-in game at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Duron and referee Fred Gracia exchanged words after the play was over, and Gracia ejected Duron from the contest after back-to-back unsportsmanlike penalties on the same play.

Duron, who was leading the Bobcats in tackles (102) and sacks (eight) through four games, then charged onto the field as teammates raced after him in an attempt to hold him back. The senior defensive end collided with Gracia, checking him chest-to-chest at full speed and sending him to the turf.

Duron was escorted out from the stadium by a team of four Edinburg CISD police officers who were working security for the game. He was not handcuffed, but was removed from the premises and did not return.

When approached for comment, the group of four Edinburg CISD Police Department officers responded, “No comment. We are not at liberty to talk about that.”

“I can’t release any information on that and I apologize for that,” Edinburg High head football coach JJ Lejia said. “I hope you understand. I want this (moment) to be about our program and all the other kids we had on the field tonight.”

Referee Fred Gracia falls to the ground after being charged by Edinburg High’s Emmanuel Duron in a 31-6A zone play-in game against PSJA High at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Gracia, the official involved, was able to get up under his own power and was helped off the field after a cart was driven onto the turf so medical personnel could assess the situation.

He was taken to an ambulance outside of the stadium gates, where he was medically evaluated for a potential shoulder injury and concussion-like symptoms. Gracia also did not return to the game and officials continued shorthanded for the remainder of the contest.

Gracia, a McAllen resident, is 58 years old and has been with the Texas Association of Sports Officials for 27 years.

Duron was suspended for the remainder of the 2019-20 soccer season after a similar incident occurred during a match on the pitch last year against crosstown rival Edinburg Vela.

Duron was The Monitor’s All-Area Boys Wrestler of the Year last season.

Referee Fred Gracia lays on the ground right after being charged by Edinburg High’s Emmanuel Duron in a 31-6A zone play-in game against PSJA High at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Edinburg High administrators declined to comment on the incident, although Lejia said he was disappointed that the incident marred a high-stakes and otherwise competitive game.

“I think our best game of the season tonight was on offense,” Lejia said. “Last week we played a tough Vela team, but this team is well-coached and we have experienced coaches everywhere (on our staff). Those guys do a great job.”

“Defensively, we had some breakdowns but we have a young secondary,” he added. “We can’t use that as an excuse because we’re already this deep into the season, but they’re 15 years old and we’re trying to do the best we can. The kids were playing hard and I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

The Bobcats and Bears traded touchdowns throughout the opening portion of the game before both defenses settled in during the second half. Edinburg High forced and recovered a fumble and picked off two passes down the stretch to pitch a second-half shutout.

Edinburg High football player Emmanuel Duron is escorted out of Richard R. Flores Stadium after charging a referee during a 31-6A zone play-in game with PSJA High at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“It was a good game. My O-line did great today,” Bobcats senior running back Shandon Woodard said after scoring two of his team’s five touchdowns. “They got the blocks and I ran through the hole. Our offense played great. We played amazing and our defense played amazing. It was just an all-around good game today.”

Senior quarterback Rolando Abrego and Woodard starred for Edinburg High offensively during the team’s highest-scoring game of the year.

Abrego connected for two touchdown passes: one long 39-yard bomb to wideout Christian Ramirez and a short pass to Woodard for six. The Bobcats senior quarterback also ran for two scores in his most productive outing of the season.

Woodard, meanwhile, ran all over the Bears defense, scoring one touchdown on the ground and a second on the pass from Abrego inside the red zone.

“It was all thanks to our offensive line and the holes they made,” Woodard said. “They were there and I saw them and got through them.”

The Bobcats’ senior duo was motivated to make sure this would not be their final game and secured Edinburg High’s first postseason berth since 2018 after missing out on the playoffs by one game last year.

“We’re very excited. We’ve been waiting for this since last season,” Woodard said. “We missed it last year, but we’re here today and we’re going to keep going.”

Edinburg High advances to the Class 6A Division I playoffs with the victory and will either travel to face the Harlingen High Cardinals or host the San Benito Greyhounds in the bi-district round based upon the results of the second of two 31-6A zone play-in games between the Edinburg North Cougars and PSJA North Raiders, which kicks off at 7:30 tonight at PSJA Stadium in Pharr.

“We’re excited and our kids are excited. (Making the playoffs) was one of our goals and it’s tough because we didn’t do anything (as a program) until we got released (to resume practicing) in September,” Lejia said. “I’m just glad to see the look on their faces. … We were picked to finish seventh in our district and now we’re going to the dance. That’s all that matters.”

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch