EDINBURG — Facing a third-and-goal situation with time winding down during the fourth quarter, Edinburg Vela senior quarterback AJ Sotelo stepped under center looking to drain the clock and put the District 31-6A championship game on ice.
Sotelo rolled to the right and handed it off to junior back Ted Galvan, who glided into the end zone behind the blocking of senior left tackle Ronnie Garza for Edinburg Vela’s third rushing touchdown of the night.
Galvan’s rushing score, his second of the night, was the cherry on top for the SaberCats, who rolled to a commanding 24-7 victory against the Mission High Eagles to capture both the District 31-6A title and a perfect regular-season record for the second time in three years in one of The Monitor’s two Games of the Week on Friday night at Richard R. Flores Stadium.
It marks the third unbeaten regular season for Vela in a brief nine-year school history. It was also the first December game in program history as the SaberCats looked primed to play deep into the winter.
“First and foremost, kudos to Mission High. They’ve got a great ballclub and their defense definitely gave us fits in that first half,” Sotelo said. “I think we did a good job of making adjustments at halftime and coming out and finishing the way we’re supposed to.”
“It was a battle,” Garza said. “It was all about trusting our coach and playing physical … they’re obviously a very physical team. But we came out with this victory in the trenches.”
In a matchup of the top two ranked Class 6A teams in the RGVSports.com Top 10 Poll, the SaberCats struck first and quickly.
On the opening drive of the contest, Sotelo marched Vela 50 yards downfield before capping off the drive with a 5-yard quarterback scramble for the first touchdown of the game. On the next possession, the SaberCats again drove into the red zone but settled for a 35-yard field goal to take a double-digit edge.
The Eagles settled down defensively after a rocky start and did not allow another SaberCats score in the first half, but it was Vela’s dominant defense throughout the opening half that helped the team carry its lead from wire to wire for the fifth consecutive game this season.
Edinburg Vela has not trailed for a single second against any opponent this season in five regular-season games, holding them to an average of 10.4 points per game. All were wins by three possessions or more.
“Our defense has been lights out this year,” Garza said. “They did everything that they needed to. I think (Mission) was one of the highest-scoring offenses in the Valley. The fact that they held them to seven points? That’s amazing.”
The Eagles scored their lone touchdown on a bomb of a pass from midfield delivered from junior quarterback Jeremy Duran, 31-6A’s leading passer, to junior wideout Gilberto Bernal through tight coverage right at the corner of the goal line and sideline above the pylon.
That long touchdown pass put Mission High back into the game with 21 seconds left during the first half, but Vela took a 10-7 edge into the locker room.
The second half, however, was all SaberCats.
Edinburg Vela’s offense showed poise and dictated the tempo throughout the second half of the game, mixing the run with the pass and keeping Mission, the top-ranked defense in the Rio Grande Valley, guessing.
“We were just trying to take what they would give us,” Sotelo said. “When they give us the pass, we’re going to take it. When they give us the run, we’re going to take that too. It was just a matter of what they were doing on defense.”
Senior linebacker Justin Soto and senior defensive tackle Dante Lopez each sacked Sotelo and blew up several plays in the backfield, but as the game wore on the SaberCats started winning the battle in the trenches in a big way.
With the team’s leading scorer in senior running back PJ Rivera sidelined, Garza and Vela’s vaunted offensive line took control of the contest in the third and fourth quarters.
Garza, a UTSA Roadrunners commit, was the sparkplug for the SaberCats’ offensive line. He frequently set the edge for Vela’s stable of capable backs and helped lead the Valley’s biggest offensive line to a dominating performance in the second half.
Vela’s rushing output only increased as time ticked away, which allowed Galvan to find the end zone once during the third quarter to extend the SaberCats’ lead and once more to ice it in the waning moments.
“If you can control the line of scrimmage and you get a positive gain every time you run the ball, it just does all the work by itself,” Garza said.
The Vela defense, meanwhile, pitched a second-half shutout against the high-flying Eagles offense. Mission was unable to gain traction on the ground running the ball all night, as the SaberCats’ downhill rush defense was too much to overcome.
Duran attempted to lead the Eagles on a late comeback by airing it out deep downfield and often, but the offense was unable to string together enough first downs to stay on the field consistently.
“It’s a lot of support. You’re able to go into the game knowing that your defense is shutting them out,” Sotelo said. “It gives you a sense of not necessarily laying back, but you go in there a lot more confident.”
The victory was a seminal moment this season for the SaberCats, who faced a two-week program quarantine after their first game. After a two-week hiatus from football activities, Vela returned and thrashed every district opponent in 31-6A’s north zone en route to a dominant district championship game performance.
“This feels awesome, man, especially in my senior year and in a season when nothing was guaranteed,” Garza said. “We didn’t know if (football season) was even going to happen and then we had all these conflicts to overcome and we had the quarantine.”
“This feels great. It’s something we missed out on last year, but we were coming for it this year,” Sotelo said. “We couldn’t take no for an answer.”
The Mission High Eagles (4-1, 2-0) will host the San Benito Greyhounds (3-2, 2-1) in the bi-district round of the Class 6A Division I playoffs, while the Edinburg Vela SaberCats (5-0, 3-0) will host the Weslaco High Panthers (3-1, 2-1) in the bi-district round of the Class 6A Division II playoffs.
Game dates and times for both bi-district matchups have yet to be determined.
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