PHARR — When PSJA North and Harlingen South last met in Harlingen in Week 2 of the 2018 season, neither team could muster more than a one-possession lead for the majority of the contest.
Momentum teetered back and forth like a seesaw, as the Raiders led by a touchdown entering the second half before falling behind again at the outset of the fourth quarter. They charged back from a four-point deficit to take the lead, only to watch it slip away down the stretch thanks to a missed PAT and a go-ahead Hawks field goal that handed them a 24-23 loss.
That was the story of PSJA North’s season a year ago, as four of the team’s five losses were one-possession games at the end. But fresh off a trip to the second round of the playoffs, the Raiders are using that experience, added confidence and a chip on their shoulders to prove that they’re one of the most well-rounded groups throughout the Rio Grande Valley.
“Almost all of our guys have two years or more of varsity experience,” senior linebacker and defensive end Aaron Alvarez said. “It’s prepared us because we got a taste for other team’s and how they play. (We know) how tough it is to get to the playoffs and what we need to do to get there. We just need to keep putting in work.”
In a crushing Week 1 win over PSJA Memorial, the squad only needed to run 38 offensive plays to wallop the Wolverines 44-8. The Raiders tallied a jaw-dropping 504 yards of total offense while its defense held PSJA Memorial to a measly 51 rushing and 29 passing yards.
“That’s what we expect every game: less than 100 yards and keep the score at zero,” Alvarez said.
Still, PSJA North was underwhelmed and not content with its pounding of the Wolverines in Week 1, saying they can and will play better and cleaner moving forward.
“We were crazy sloppy in that ballgame,” head coach Marcus Kaufmann said. “We had a lot of mistakes with 23 penalties. They were only for 100 and something yards, but some of the big offensive plays that we had were big long runs that got called back. It’s only a 10-yard penalty but it’s actually 60 yards, so we left about 350 yards on the field in penalties alone.”
The Raiders might have the Valley’s most imposing defense in 2019 and their playmakers on every level of the unit are a testament to that. Alvarez can play all over the field, dropping back in coverage or as part of a prolific pass rush.
He was tabbed as a first team all-state selection as a junior after recording 18 sacks and more than 100 tackles. Playing alongside him at the linebacker spot is Micah Lopez, who notched 117 tackles in 2018 as a sophomore.
PSJA North also has last year’s district defensive player of the year, safety Seven Sanchez, who was also named the district’s preseason defensive player of the year again this season. Sanchez is an elite pass defender and all-around stud, making 184 tackles and 18 tackles for loss in 2018 in addition to snagging three interceptions and causing three fumbles.
“The whole program is built around multiplicity. We can morph into anything we need to be like water,” Kaufmann said. “They’re going to do some damage because they feel slighted.”
The Raiders’ dominant defense should cause a lot of problems for Harlingen South and senior quarterback David Torres. Despite the Hawks’ 24-0 win over Edinburg High, they struggled in the passing game.
Torres completed just one of 12 pass attempts for 43 yards and a pick against the Bobcats, which would deliver disastrous results if he were to duplicate that performance against a ball-hawking PSJA North secondary and ferocious pass rush.
The Hawks had success running the ball last week — tallying 179 yards on 43 rush attempts — but that will be a much tougher task against the North’s mammoth defensive front. The Raiders’ front seven defensively may be the biggest and strongest the school has ever seen and would present immense challenges for any run-heavy offense.
“We’re balanced,” Alvarez said. “We’re able to stop the run. When we come off the ball we’re good and our pass coverage is also good.”
PSJA North had tremendous success of its own running the ball in Week 1. Senior quarterback Iziaah Rangel, one of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks in the area, ran for 219 yards and three touchdowns against PSJA Memorial, averaging 23.8 yards per carry in that contest.
“Working with Iziaah was really big,” running back Isaac Gonzalez said. “He knows whenever I need help with something. He’s the quarterback and he lets me know what to do. He’s there to guide me and help me out and to push me to do everything better.”
But a key cog in the Raiders’ offense this time around will be Gonzalez, who didn’t have a starting role when his team last faced Harlingen South. He rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in limited action as a freshman and his season debut didn’t disappoint.
The sophomore back ran wild for 185 yards and three scores against the Wolverines and looks to have taken another big step forward, which he attributes to his offseason work and experience gained as a freshman.
“Last year was me getting a taste of what it was going to feel like playing on varsity. This year I feel more confident in myself because of last year,” Gonzalez said. “I worked even harder so I could be prepared even better. I put more time into the weight room and holding the ball high and tight.”
Offensively, the Raiders will be looking to have more of a vertical presence against the Hawks this week after not having many opportunities to utilize that part of their game in a blowout season opener.
Senior receiver John Garza proved in Week 1 that he can be a deep threat for PSJA North. He hauled in two catches for 72 yards, which represented all but seven of his team’s passing yards.
He’ll be a handful for a Harlingen South defense that leaned heavily on four takeaways — one pick and three fumbles — to pitch a shutout against Edinburg High. If everything breaks their way, the Raiders could be the team boasting about a scoreless night when it’s all said and done.