The strange thing is, the Big Game might be just for fun after all.
That is the irony of the 2009 football wars, which give us Edinburg vs. North at Cats Stadium Nov. 6, a tilt that more often than not has had some playoff implications in the past. But if both teams can win this week, they will be playoff bound, leaving the District 31-5A finale simply for bragging rights, and as North Coach Roy Garza suggests, pride.
“Right, both us and EHS can clinch if we win this week,” said Garza, whose bunch is 3-2 in 31-5A and 5-3 overall heading into a home match Friday against flagging P-SJ-A Memorial. “We know we’ll be Division II and the ‘Cats will be Big School … I love the rivalry game and so do the kids, and we are going to have a lot of fun in that one, with the City Championship on the line … but we would rather clinch the playoffs this week, for sure.”
It has been a good year for North, and its third straight postseason voyage is on the horizon barring the unforeseen disaster. The team has weathered some minor disasters intermittently, starting with a rash of preseason injuries, and come out the other side in fine shape, despite losses to Harlingen and Pharr North in league play. The Coogs welcome the 2-3 Wolverines to town Friday knowing that a solid effort will put them into a position they have become used to lately, as a participant in the Second Season.
Garza spent some time Wednesday night discussing possible playoff opponents - right now, it looks like either Los Fresnos or Brownsville Pace - but cautioned that before worrying about Division II (or Small School, by enrollment) bi-district action, there is still work to be done.
“We have to take care of business and Memorial may be down, but they have some weapons.” he said. “They still have an outside chance and we have to come to play, just like every week in this district.”
If and when the playoffs come, North will go as far as senior quarterback Matt Munoz takes it. After taking over for good when Raul Monsevais quit the team in September, the lanky chunker has been outstanding, throwing for close to 1,400 yards and adding over 700 on the ground, leading the team in both categories.
“Matthew has really developed this season,” said the coach. “We always knew he was a great athlete, but now he has gotten so much better at reads and decisions, he really has come of age and done some great things. He just makes a lot of plays for us.”
Munoz has also been deadly in accuracy, completing 63 percent of his passes for 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Toss in the pair of comeback wins he engineered in the fourth quarter against P-SJ-A and Econ, and it adds up to an All-District season, although with so many fine QBs in the district, including Harlingen’s Mack Sanchez and Pharr North’s Noe Garcia, it will be crowded at the top of the honor list.
“He is seeing the game so well right now, he may start slowly sometimes but once he warms up and gets comfortable, he just seems to go from there,” said Garza, whose offense has scored 256 points in eight games.
With the advent of the Spread Offense, having a QB like Munoz who can fire it or take off at the drop of a hat is vital. Garza noted that the wide-open attacks that have dominated the Valley in recent years keep the coaches on their toes too.
“Yes, it makes for an interesting night for the coaches,” he laughed. “We prepare all week, studying tendencies and trends, and then on game night we react to what the defense does. It seems like both offenses and defenses are always adjusting on the fly, and we have to think fast. So do the quarterbacks.”
To that end, North’s mentor says that Munoz is an expert at seeing when he needs to dump the ball off, and when the keeper is called for; he’s connected with running back Simon Edwards 16 times so far out of the backfield and gained 228 yards rushing himself against the Raiders, with four scores.
“It is definitely like a chess match out there and sometimes we get surprised just like the fans do,” Garza explained. “We ourselves don’t always know what is coming but we try to predict based on the films. It’s fun to watch, I know that. What we try to do is teach the kids to see the game unfold and be ready to make a change, quickly. Matthew is really good at that right now.”
In practice, the Coogs spend an ample amount of time working under game situations, as they are told the down and distance before a play, and then drilled to read, respond, and execute.
“We’ll say, ‘OK, it’s third and short, or third and long, whatever,’ and then we run the play,” Garza said. “They are learning to expect to have to adjust because the defenses are changing what they do to try and stop us. We rep, rep, rep against various defensive looks and various situations, down and distance, what hash, etc.”
The offense has blossomed in 2009 once again, and been relatively injury-free, but on the other side of the ball, things have been tougher.
“We had a lot of guys banged up, we lost Cory Esparza and Blaze Walker early, then Arthur Perez, who is back now and working his way into shape,” Garza said. “Plus, we have worked some juniors into the secondary rotation, because we are looking for guys who can make the plays. We seem to have some kids who can cover but not hit that well, and then vice versa. We need kids to do both on the field.”
Garza is pleased with the way his offense has produced, including a line that was somewhat of a question mark heading into the season. He notes that the Coogs have improved each week up front, and that the blocking scheme has benefited from excellent downfield hits from the receivers, especially Danny Cardenas.
“Each week it seems we have another receiver step up with a big game, last week it was JoeMar,” he said, recalling that JoeMar Vazquez caught touchdowns of 53 and 41 yards against Harlingen South, making the corps even more dangerous. At various times in 2009, Jordan Quiroz has been the star, along with dependable vet Juan Ramirez. Andrew Partida snared four TD balls in the season opener.
“We have seen guys step up when we needed them to so far,” Garza said. “And if we can get some guys on defense to do the same thing the last two games, then maybe we can start thinking about the playoffs. But before EHS, we just have to clinch a playoff spot. We don’t want to come down to the last game needing a win to make it.”