MISSION — In the closing seconds of the first half, Mission High sophomore quarterback Jeremy Duran stepped under center on the outer edges of the red zone. He took the snap and weaved through the pocket avoiding pressure while looking for a target downfield.
He waited until senior wideout Stevie Villarreal broke out of his cut, then Duran unloaded a back-shoulder throw to his favorite target. Villarreal caught the goal line fade pass in the back-right corner of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown pass.
It was the third of three passing touchdowns between he and Duran, as the Eagles jumped out to a one-point halftime lead and rode a second half shuttle to escape with a 31-30 win over the visiting La Joya Juarez-Lincoln Huskies on Thursday night at Tom Landry Stadium.
“He’s the guy to go to. All of our receivers are nice, but the matchups today were in favor of him,” Duran said of Villarreal. “That corner was lost when he was on Stevie, and we just took advantage of the corner.”
It was the third time Duran and Villarreal connected for a score through the air, after completing touchdown passes of 13 and 15 yards. The duo combined for three out of four of the Eagles’ first-half touchdowns. The two ultimately finished the night connecting on 12 receptions for a game-high 157 receiving yards.
“I didn’t try to just stare at him because then they’d go over there and it would result in a turnover,” Duran said. “I tried to just read the defense but if it was open, I was going to hit it.”
The offensive output was desperately needed after the lightning quick start the Huskies’ offense enjoyed throughout the opening half. Juarez-Lincoln scored on its first drive of the evening, capping it off with a 10-yard scoring pass from senior quarterback Josh Briones to wide receiver Isaac Villanueva, who was an offensive force throughout.
That gave the Huskies an early 8-0 edge and the scoring onslaught was on after that. The Eagles responded with a field goal and the first of three Duran-to-Villarreal scores to take their first lead of the night and started a pattern of trading blow for blow offensively in the early going.
“They got hot and found a rhythm,” Duran said. “We didn’t score our first drive, but then we got a huge turnover and then we just put points on the board and it was a shootout from there. It was good enough for us to win and it was good that we kept ourselves in the game in the first half.”
The Huskies and Eagles traded jabs back and forth like a pair of fighters in a prize fight, with Briones connecting on a 64-yard bomb to track star receiver Luis Flores over the top of the Mission defense. Mission’s Andrew Maldonado stole the lead right back on a 3-yard touchdown scamper.
Juarez-Lincoln running back Luis Venencia rattled off a couple of big runs to keep his offense humming and counteract Villarreal’s impact on the opposite sideline. Venencia had a breakout game on the ground running for 122 yards on just 11 handoffs.
“I thought they were matching us score for score because our offense was clicking on all cylinders,” Juarez-Lincoln head coach Tommy Garcia said. “People make adjustments though; we made adjustments at halftime and so did they.”
The script was flipped on its head during the second half, however, as the Huskies and Eagles each pitched defensive shutouts in the latter half of the contest.
Mission’s offense was marred by a series of turnovers and a missed field goal opportunity on the opening drive of the third quarter. The Huskies’ ability to shut down an explosive Eagles’ offense is all the more impressive when injuries are factored into the equation, as well.
Juarez-Lincoln entered the night decimated by injuries from its first two district showdowns only to see more players in the secondary go down tonight, which resulted in a fair number of players being asked to play both ways in the second half.
“The defense shutting them down in the second half was amazing considering we had people there that haven’t played defense all year. We go with that switch and repeat period where they go work on the other side of the ball 10-15 minutes every day, but now you’re asking someone who’s not (usually) on defense to do something that they get 10-15 minutes a day to practice,” Garcia said. We had takeaways and plenty of missed opportunities in the second half where we could have converted. All we needed was a field goal and we couldn’t do that. That’s on me. We just need to be able to execute in crunch time and we weren’t able to do that.”
The Huskies, though, were hampered offensively during the second half by a litany of costly penalties that stalled drives. An interception of a batted ball during the closing seconds officially ended any comeback aspirations for visiting Juarez-Lincoln, marking the second time in three games the team has turned the ball over on its final drive with a chance to win or tie.
“I saw a lot of heart. We’ve got a lot of kids injured and we don’t have a lot of depth. But with our kids, I use the Rudy Tomjonavich from the (Houston) Rockets: ‘Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion,’” Garcia said. “I love these kids. These kids are the first team we’ve ever had practice in the morning and they’re going to give you everything they’ve got. It was obvious on the field.”
For the cardiac Eagles, it’s their third straight district win by three points or fewer and they feel fortunate to have made it out another week unscathed.
“It says that we don’t quit. We have a winner’s mentality,” Duran said. “We showed glimpses of an explosive team, we just haven’t put it all together. Once we put it all together, we’re going to be tough to beat.”
No. 6 Mission (5-1, 3-0) will return to action for a highly anticipated bout against PSJA North (3-2, 1-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Pharr, while Juarez-Lincoln (1-5, 0-3) will look for its first win of district play when it squares off against cross-town rival La Joya High (2-3, 0-2) at the same time.