Edinburg Vela's Jake Dufner (99) gets emotional after pressuring Weslaco Rodney Garza (7) causing a fumble during the winding moments of the 4th quarter Class 6A Division II bi-district game at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Friday ,Dec.11,2020 in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

EDINBURG — Coming into their highly-anticipated tilt against Weslaco High in the bi-district round of the Class 6A Division II playoffs, the Edinburg Vela SaberCats hadn’t trailed for a single second this season.

The SaberCats, however, quickly found themselves behind 17 seconds into the game after Panthers senior running back Jesse Hernandez ran 74 yards untouched to the end zone to give his team an early edge.

Led by senior quarterback AJ Sotelo and a fierce defensive effort late, though, Vela stormed back and rallied to escape with a narrow 38-33 victory over Weslaco High after a frenetic second half Friday night at Richard R. Flores Stadium.

With the win, Vela advances to the area round for the fourth consecutive season.

“We made some adjustments at halftime and played a lot better,” Edinburg Vela head coach John Campbell said. “But these were good growing pains because we haven’t been in that situation yet this year. I think our kids did a pretty good job of weathering the storm.”

Weslaco’s Jesse Hernandez (21) gets past Edinburg Vela’s Erik Arguello(18) during the 2nd quarter of a Class 6A Division II playoffs game at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

Despite Vela’s late surge, the first half belonged to Weslaco.

Hernandez scored long touchdowns on the Panthers’ first two drives of the night, once on the 74-yard scamper and again on a 45-yard run down the far sideline.

Edinburg Vela settled for a chip-shot field goal on its first drive into the red zone to end the first quarter and scored again on the next possession on a deep touchdown pass from Sotelo to senior wideout Austin Carrillo to make it a two-point game.

But Hernandez found the end zone one more time, his third rushing touchdown of the opening half, to widen Weslaco’s edge again, but Sotelo led an inspired Vela offense down the field and with no timeouts remaining, scrambled, lowered his shoulder and bowled over two Panthers defenders to make it a 20-17 Weslaco advantage at halftime.

The trio of Weslaco High senior linebackers — Josh Burket, Jesse Perez and Ethan Zamora — were all big reasons for the SaberCats’ sluggish start with all three making appearances at defensive end, too.

Edinburg Vela’s AJ Sotelo (7) is brought down by Weslaco’s defender Jesse Perez (3) during the 1st quarter of a Class 6A Division II bi-district game at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

“(Weslaco) gave us a different personnel package that we weren’t aware of,” Campbell said. “We had to adjust to that and didn’t have time to do it in the first half.”

“We had to compete and we had to finish,” Sotelo said. “Every time we’re on that field, we have the mentality that we’re going to score. That’s what we were doing.”

Sotelo and the SaberCats offense picked up right where they left off to open the third quarter, as Vela’s signal-caller rushed in for his third touchdown on the ground.

Weslaco retook the lead on a touchdown pass from senior quarterback Rodney Garza to wideout Melton Rodriguez. Weslaco earned several key defensive stops, but SaberCats sophomore defensive end Jake Dufner made the play of the game jarring a fumble loose, which Vela fell on deep in Panthers’ territory.

Weslaco Rodney Garza (7) gets sacked by Edinburg Vela’s Jake Dufner (99) causing a fumble during the 4th quarter of a Class 6A Division II bi-district game at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

A few plays later, Sotelo punched into the end zone on a QB keeper and the SaberCats retook the lead for the second time in the second half. On the next drive, Sotelo aired one out deep to senior receiver Mito Perez, who tiptoed down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown reception.

That pass, Sotelo’s second for a touchdown Friday night, moved him into fifth place all-time in career touchdown passes in Rio Grande Valley high school football history.

“Kudos to my O-line, kudos to my receiving corps and kudos to our running backs and our defense,” Sotelo said. “No matter the score on the scoreboard, we stayed even-keeled. That’s what we needed to do and I think that’s what helped us come out on top tonight.”

“He’s a great kid and phenomenal leader,” Campbell said of Sotelo. “The fact that he can play football this well and baseball well is a bonus, so for the people of the RGV to witness his performances the last three years, whether you support Vela football or not, it’s kids like that that make this all worthwhile.”

Edinburg Vela’s Carlos Tamez (9) loses his helmet on a hit from Weslaco’s defenders Aaron Tamez (1) and Evan Zamora (3) during the 4th quarter of a Class 6A Division II bi-district game at Richard R. Flores Stadium on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, in Edinburg. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

The Panthers played until the final whistle, though, as Garza and the Panthers stormed downfield in about 90 seconds and scored to make it a one-score game again.

Weslaco earned its biggest defensive stop of the night on fourth down and short to get the ball back at its own 25-yard line with 25 seconds and no timeouts remaining. Garza moved his team 40 yards downfield before a last-second Hail Mary pass was intercepted in the end zone on the final play.

The SaberCats (6-0), the top-ranked team in the RGVSports.com Top 10 Poll will face the San Antonio Brennan Bears (9-1) in the area round of the Class 6A DII playoffs next week at Buccaneer Stadium in Corpus Christi with the date and time still to be determined.

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch