MISSION — When La Joya Juarez-Lincoln took to the practice field at the start of the preseason, the team had a singular focus: redemption.
The Huskies took a step back in 2018 amidst a rocky 0-10 season. Despite their winless finish, victory always seemed to be within their grasp, only to slip away at the last moment.
“Last year was a very disappointing season,” head coach Tomas Garcia said. “We had a senior ball club, we ended up 0-10 and we lost about five games by a total of eight points. With possession of the ball in a couple of games, we were on the edge of kicking a field goal and we fumble.”
Juarez-Lincoln lost four one-possession games by a total of 13 points, many of which saw the team carry a lead into the second half, only to have it evaporate down the stretch.
During a non-district matchup at Sharyland Pioneer, the Huskies surrendered two touchdowns and turned the ball over four times in the waning minutes of play to fall 31-29 despite owning a halftime lead. The story line was much the same during district play in five-, four- and two-point losses to PSJA High, McAllen High and Mission High, respectively.
The school, however, is only a few years removed from back-to-back playoff appearances and a 6-4 mark in 2017, the best in school history. But despite a season full of heartbreak, Garcia and the Huskies are ready to return to their winning ways in 2019 and their goals reflect that.
“Those three years changed the attitude and the culture as far as our kids are concerned. They understand what it takes to win now,” Garcia said. “That was what was lacking last year: We had some seniors, but there was a lack of leadership last year. This year, you see everybody as more of a team and the leadership we’re getting from the seniors is big and trickling on down to the younger kids.”
Juarez-Lincoln will have a lot more to replace this year in addition to its attitude and culture, though. The Huskies return six starters on offense as well as five returning starters on the defensive side of the ball.
The squad also added a new offensive coordinator, Daniel Cortes, to reinvigorate what could be one of District 30-6A’s most potent offenses in 2019.
The team returns three starters along a veteran offensive line, as well as the signal caller behind it, quarterback Josh Briones. Briones, a senior this year, was thrown into action during the third game of last season after the Huskies previous starting quarterback went down with an injury.
He was baptized by fire having to learn on the fly, while the offense was forced to narrow its play calling to accommodate the sudden change. But Garcia and his coaching staff raved about the progress the young quarterback has made since and believe his experience now will help them open their offensive playbook.
“Last year he was wide-eyed as soon as we threw him in and there were too many plays that we couldn’t run. We kept it very simple, but he was able to manage the game for the rest of the year to where toward the end of the year we were able to run more things with him,” he said. “He got thrown in and that experience goes a long ways, and you can see it the way he’s leading the offensive unit, the way he controls the offensive huddle. He understands that it’s a total different ball game and you see him a lot more relaxed.”
Joining Briones in Juarez-Lincoln’s new spread offense are a corp of veteran wide receivers led by Luis Flores and Isaac Villanueva. Flores — the 6-foot-3, two-time district and defending area high jump champion —and Villanueva are both track stars that bring a special level of athleticism to the outside for their squad.
Rather than trying to out muscle bigger teams on the ground, Flores and his teammates are hoping to use their superior speed on the outside with their new spread attack to get a leg up on the competition through the air.
“That’s what we’ve been working on mostly this year,” Flores said. “It’s always about going full speed. We definitely have some key players that are really fast.”
“We’re going to try to get them in open space so they can be playmakers and that’s what they do,” Garcia said. “When our receivers break it, they’re playmakers. We need for them to be because we don’t have that size.”
But on the defensive side, it’s a little more complicated. Although the Huskies return five starters, one returning defensive lineman may sit out the season due to an early graduation date while another, middle linebacker Kenth Hernandez, tore his ACL in a non-contact practice drill and is likely out for the year.
That leaves Juarez-Lincoln with very little experience in its front seven to provide the foundation for its 3-4 scheme. But the team is still very strong in the secondary, where ball-hawking defensive backs Jose Marquez and Albert Batres lead the pack.
“We’re going to be explosive and we’re going to get picks,” Marquez said. “We’re not the biggest, but we’ve got speed and we’re going to put that up.”
Even with a young defense and a new offensive scheme, the Huskies are determined to join the playoff hunt. Though viewed as underdogs, they are out to prove they can back up their bark with some serious bite.
“Like always, we’re the underdogs,” Marquez said. “But we’re going to back it up and we’ve got heart. We’re going to surprise people.”