SAN JUAN — When PSJA High entered its first full season in District 30-6A last year, not a whole lot of pundits or other teams viewed them as a major threat.
But the Bears quickly shook off that perception. After a sluggish 1-2 start in non-district play, they rattled off wins in six of their next seven games en route to a playoff appearance and the 2018 district crown in their first attempt.
Heading into 2019, however, there’s no more hiding as a non-favorite for PSJA High as the team sets out to defend its place atop the district throne.
“We know that last year a lot of people counted us out. We weren’t in a lot of playoff predictions, we weren’t making the top four in a lot of polls,” senior quarterback Justin Morales said. “But this year a lot of people are going to have targets on our backs and we’re ready for it. We’re ready to go out there with that challenge every game.”
Morales, who last started at quarterback on the junior varsity team in 2017, is making the transition back to the primary signal caller after starting at slot receiver and backing up former starter Trey Guajardo in his junior season.
Guajardo anchored the air-raid offense for PSJA behind center last year, throwing for a district-high 3,371 yards through the air and 306.5 per game. The Bears’ star also tallied a 64.3 completion percentage as well as 32 passing touchdowns compared to just four interceptions.
Morales racked up 389 yards receiving and five touchdowns in 2018, but head coach Lupe Rodriguez has liked what he’s seen from his new senior quarterback during his positional transition this offseason.
“He’s a very bright kid. He understands our offense, what every receiver is running and it definitely allows us to start off basically where we left off last year,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t have to spend too much time with learning the offense. He already knows it and he’s done a great job of commanding the position and taking it.”
Joining Morales in PSJA’s high-octane offense is a litany of speedy wide receivers headlined by slot receiver Ethan Castillo and seniors Miguel Flores and Marco Guajardo on the outside.
Flores and Guajardo were the keys to the Bears’ high-scoring attack, combining for 1,490 yards and 24 receiving touchdowns in 2018 as part of an offense that averaged 34 points and 309.5 receiving yards per game. The duo also has blazing speed with both senior wide outs registering 4.5 second 40-yard dash times.
“Marco and Mike are two of the fastest guys in the Valley,” Morales said. “They can get by any corner or DB in the Valley, so it’s just a good feeling knowing I can throw it out there and they’ll go get it and beat everybody else out there on the field.”
The last time Morales was airing it out to Flores and Guajardo, their freshman team won a district title. But the trio’s connection and history playing alongside each other goes much deeper.
“We’ve been together since we were small little kids playing football and we were playing flag football together,” Guajardo said. “We have the chemistry that every team needs.”
Veteran running back JR Vasquez also figures to play a key role in PSJA’s offense out of the backfield after rushing for 787 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground a season ago.
Given the plethora of offensive weapons at his disposal, Rodriguez says the Bears’ pass-heavy offense is a combination of maximizing personnel and differentiating themselves from the rest of the district.
“Especially in this type of district that we’ve come into, not too many people see our type of offense so they don’t get to practice (defending) it week in and week out,” he said. “I think we have an advantage because of that, plus we utilize our speed. We have a lot of kids that run track, that have been district champs in track and regional champions, so we tend to utilize our speed as best as we can.”
Defensively, PSJA will rely heavily on a strong secondary featuring defensive backs Mario Cantu and Javier Pichardo. The unit tallied 22 takeaways a season ago and will need to duplicate that to be effective this year.
“Last year they finished towards the bottom of our district, believe it or not, in the defensive standings but we were still able to be district champs,” Rodriguez said. “I think this year they’re taking it as a chip on their shoulder and proving to people they’re a better defense than what the standings showed last year.”
As far as goals, the mission at PSJA High is clear: repeat and advance.
“Go 10-0 is our first goal for sure,” Morales said. “Win a district title again and get that first playoff game that’s gotten away from us the past couple of years. We want to go two, three or four rounds deep in the playoffs.”
“Last year we went one round and fell short in overtime versus Eagle Pass,” Guajardo said. “Our expectation is to win the district championship once again and go past the first round, go second round and get farther than that. We’re building our team to be great this year.”