EDINBURG — The Edinburg Vela SaberCats, the top-ranked team in the RGVSports.com Top 10 Poll entering the Class 5A-6A Texas high school football playoffs, are enjoying one of their most dominant seasons in the program’s short nine-year history.
The SaberCats, who defeated the previously unbeaten Mission High Eagles on Friday in the District 31-6A championship game to stay undefeated on the year, clinched their fourth perfect regular-season finish in the last six years and their fifth district title during that stretch too.
But when discussing the 2020 version of Edinburg Vela, one stat stands above the rest: the SaberCats have not yet trailed an opponent for a single second this season.
How has Vela done it?
Mostly behind the strength of the biggest offensive line in the Rio Grande Valley, which is pushing the SaberCats to new heights as the program prepares to make its seventh consecutive trip to the postseason.
“Our coaches always say, ‘Do your one-eleventh,’” right tackle Andrew Alvarado said. “I think so far, we’ve been able to do that in every game week in and week out.”
The SaberCats veteran offensive line towers above most of its competition with all five starters standing between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-6, which has prompted the same question from each of all of its opposition.
“I feel like we have a pretty big (offensive) line,” center Brandon Hinojosa said. “Every team we’ve faced, the one thing we’ve heard from all the opposing players is, ‘How tall are you guys?’”
“We get that question every game, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re a college-sized line,” said left tackle Ronnie Garza, a UTSA Roadrunners commit. “We need to use that size to our ability. I don’t know about the biggest (in the RGV), but I’d say that we’re pretty big.”
The Vela offensive line — Garza, left guard Mark Gomez, Hinojosa, right guard Chris Leal and Alvarado — looks and plays like a symphony in motion.
The combination of size and speed from one end of the SaberCats’ O-line to the other makes getting past or keeping pace with this group a challenge for most defenses, and the group’s physicality upfront has worn down opponents as games progress and allowed Vela to own the time of possession battle throughout the season.
“We have slow guards, but our center is really, really fast. It definitely helps and sort of cancels out,” said left guard Chris Leal, who led the charge in finding creative workout workarounds for the group in the offseason. “We focussed on a lot of band workouts, plyometrics and speed workouts (this offseason).”
The SaberCats offensive line, however, stared down adversity in the lead up to the 2020 high school football season in the RGV.
After Edinburg CISD prevented its four high schools, including Vela, from hosting on-campus summer strength and conditioning workouts, the group had to get creative to prepare for the season.
Garza moved from right tackle to left tackle, Gomez moved from tackle to guard and Hinojosa moved from tackle to center between the end of the 2019 season and the SaberCats’ first game in 2020, which meant the group had to learn new positions on the fly without being able to practice together.
— Vela Football (@Vela_Football) December 5, 2020
“Personally, I just stuck to my workouts as much as I could and tried to stay in shape to be ready to play my position,” Hinojosa said. “We got the plays through Google Meets and we were able to view everything we were going to do before we got back out on the field.”
“I think during the quarantine, we all just had a lot more time to focus on our speed, strength and explosiveness,” Alvarado said. “I think it’s starting to show now.”
Without access to gyms, the program’s weight room or team practices, all five of Vela’s offensive line starters got to work, both as a team and individually, on studying game film together and finding creative workarounds like band workouts and plyometrics to train and stay prepared for the start of a season delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think overall since the beginning of the season, we’ve bonded and it keeps getting better and better every week,” Gomez said. “We know what everybody is doing by position and we communicate well. We communicate a lot upfront, and I think that’s what has helped us most.”
“In the beginning, it was really weird because we had never played together. This was a completely new line,” Garza said. “The first week when we went in, obviously, we weren’t perfect. But as the season has gone on, we’ve grown a lot better as a unit.”
That offseason grind and those digital study sessions paid off for the unit after a dominant Week 1 win over Mission Veterans in The Monitor’s Game of the Week when Vela had to suspend all football activities for two weeks as part of a program-wide quarantine.
That was the moment the SaberCats and the team’s offensive line realized the unique stakes of the 2020 season playing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. From that point onward, the goal for Vela has been straightforward: do not lose to the virus.
“The quarantine gave us the opportunity to work on our personal flaws and personal things we were messing up on,” Garza said. “Having that two-week quarantine situation wasn’t the ideal situation to be in because it took away, but it also gave back to us because we were able to let some injuries recover and we were also able to work on stuff for longer during those two weeks and really study.”
“It kind of opened up my eyes, like our season could end tomorrow,” Leal said. “You treat every practice like it’s your last practice because the next time this happens, our season is going to be over. It opened our eyes to the fact that our season could end because somebody caught COVID.”
Ever since, the SaberCats have played an inspired brand of football bulldozing most of its regular-season opponents behind one of the Valley’s most balanced offenses thanks to the combination of size, speed and cohesion up front.
Entering their matchup against the Weslaco High Panthers bi-district round of the Class 6A Division II playoffs Friday night in Edinburg, the SaberCats boast four receivers with more than 100 yards receiving and four rushers with three or more touchdowns on the ground each this season.
Much of that can also be credited to Edinburg Vela senior quarterback AJ Sotelo (980 passing yards, 12 total touchdowns, 74-of-113 passing), who has always looked after his lineman on and off the field and even helped the SaberCats start a new pre-game Thursday night tradition at Bella Mia’s in Edinburg.
“We do a pre-game meal with our quarterback, AJ (Sotelo),” Garza said. “Shoutout to him because he buys us all pasta the night before so we can carb up.
“He’s done that every week since he’s been the starting QB, since our sophomore year. It’s a lot of money, but he takes good care of us.”
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