PSJA North Raiders quarterback Ale Aparicio (3) hands the ball to running back Isaac Gonzalez (21) Friday night against Hanna Golden Eagles at Sams Memorial Stadium. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

PHARR — When the PSJA North Raiders traveled to Brownsville for their Class 6A Division II bi-district playoff game last Friday, they knew they would be labeled as underdogs.

Never deterred, however, PSJA North rallied behind the Rio Grande Valley’s toughest power back, a freshman phenom under center and one of the RGV’s stoutest defenses to topple previously unbeaten Brownsville Hanna thanks to 22 unanswered points and a second-half shutout.

Now, the Raiders are embracing their underdog label and hope to prove their critics wrong again as the Valley’s darkhorse team in the 6A area round. They’ll also be looking to clinch their second regional semifinals appearance in school history and the first since 2009.

“It feels amazing being doubted by a lot of people at the beginning of the season and being predicted to lose against Hanna,” said junior receiver Santiago Peña, who threw the game-clinching two-point conversion pass to freshman quarterback Ale Aparicio against Hanna. “Proving everyone wrong feels great.”

The Raiders will travel to face San Antonio Taft in their area round matchup at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Cabaniss Stadium in Corpus Christi and they’ll be led into that game by one of the Valley’s newest and most dynamic offensive duos.

For PSJA North, it all starts up front with one of the RGV’s biggest offensive lines anchored by junior left tackle Ram Martinez, who has helped shape the brick wall that set the table for two of District 31-6A’s three leading rushers: junior running back Isaac Gonzalez and Aparicio.

Gonzalez, a third-year starter, has earned a reputation across the Valley as a bruising wrecking ball of a back that bounces off would-be tacklers and bowls over most of the defenders that stand in his way.

“Isaac is just a different breed, man. Every time he runs the ball, he’s going to make something happen,” Peña said. “He brings a lot of energy to our offense and just hypes everybody up when we need it and makes big plays to change games. It’s just amazing watching him run the ball.”

The Raiders’ junior back crossed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second straight season in North’s bi-district win over Hanna and averaged 7.1 yards per carry, which leads all 6A running backs in the Rio Grande Valley. Gonzalez (1,096) has more than twice as many rushing yards as the next closest back in 31-6A.

One of the few players managing to give Gonzalez a run for his money, though, has been Aparicio, a first-year starter who was unable to participate in spring ball or do any meaningful work alongside his new teammates over the summer as COVID-19 tore through Hidalgo County.

Aparicio entered the Raiders’ first game of 2020, a road tilt against Mercedes, locked in a position battle for the starting role. Less than two months later, he helped engineer the second-half comeback that lifted PSJA North into the area round for the first time since 2018.

Aparicio has emerged as one of the RGV’s brightest rising stars on the gridiron. The freshman is a legitimate dual-threat quarterback as he ranks third overall in District 31-6A in both passing (674) and rushing yards (471).

He has also accounted for eight touchdowns in eight games and played 29 quarters of football against seven different opponents before tossing his first career interception last week.

“Ever since I was little my goal was to play at this level, so (growing up) I would always play in leagues with people older than me,” Aparicio said. “Staying calm is a big key that helps a young athlete on a big stage. My coaches and athletes have always been there for me and through this short and rough season, and I’ve been able to grow along with the older guys.”

With Gonzalez doing the heavy lifting, Aparicio has been the shot in the arm this Raiders offense was looking for. Heading into the postseason, PSJA North owned the top offense across the RGV in Class 6A averaging 394.4 yards per game.

Couple that with North’s notorious Blackshirt defense, which has pitched four second-half shutouts in eight games this year, and the Raiders believe they have a golden opportunity to become the most accomplished team in their program’s history.

“He’s grown a lot as a QB. He knows what plays to run against different defenses, he is not scared of any player he is facing and just has a lot of confidence in himself and shows a lot of leadership and knows how to get things done,” Peña said of Aparicio heading into the area round. “(A win) would mean everything to us. Beating a San Antonio team hasn’t been done here at PSJA North.”

“It will mean a lot to us and the coaches as well because this is a young group that we will have back next year and bounce back from this year,” Aparicio said. “The win wouldn’t surprise because going into every game, our mindset is to win and we have prepared all week for this important game that can go down in history if we execute every play.”

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