McALLEN — During the preseason, McAllen Rowe senior Derek Luna was set to start at linebacker. Since Week 1, however, Luna has logged snaps on defense, offense and special teams for the Warriors.
He’s jarred fumbles loose from aggressive ball carriers, while also taking carries out of his team’s backfield. He’s caught passes as a slot receiver at a high clip on offense, while batting away throws in pass coverage on defense.
“Wherever the coach tells me they want to put me, I go. I just play hard no matter what,” he said. “Wherever the coach tells me to go I’ll go. If you need a block, I’ve got the block. If you need a catch, I’ve got the catch.”
Luna’s experience through the 2019 season has been atypical for your average 6A football player, but for Rowe it’s become the norm. He’s a prime example from a long list of Warriors who are proving to be game-changers in every phase of the game.
Several players — from both sides of the ball — have been forced to take on additional roles and assignments in light of a string of costly injuries. They’ve filled in effectively and in many instances, exceeded expectations, to help Rowe reload and continue to add to its unblemished record.
“On this team, we have a lot of people who step up,” Warriors senior quarterback Jonas Ortiz said. “If one guy goes down, we’ve got two or three more that are ready to come up and help the team.”
Luna has made his presence felt regardless of where he’s been on the field this season. Defensively, the senior is one of the team leaders in tackles (30) and passes defended (three), while adding a pair of forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Offensively, Luna stepped in to play wideout as a slot receiver and has emerged as Rowe’s leading pass-catcher with 256 yards and three touchdowns on the season. He’s averaging 25.6 yards per catch, too, while also taking some handoffs out of the backfield in recent weeks.
“We’ve just been playing hard on both sides of the ball and in all three phases,” he said. “It’s always (about) grinding in all phases of the ball, no matter what.”
Luna is one of many two-way players to step up with recent injuries limiting the Warriors’ depth on both sides of the ball. Rowe lost then-leading wideout David Savage in a narrow Week 2 win over Mercedes in The Monitor’s Game of the Week.
He injured his ankle in the second quarter, never returned to the contest and hasn’t played again since, which helped set Luna on his path to break out at the position.
More recently, Rowe lost a valuable member of a prolific and deep backfield in junior Lorenzo Lopez. He also went down with an ankle injury that forced him to sit out the rest of the game.
He’s been ruled out for the Warriors’ Week 8 district clash with the PSJA High Bears in McAllen tonight at 7. Now without Savage, its primary receiver, and Lopez, their primary ball carrier early in the season, the stage has been set for Rowe to continue the trend of effective two-way players on an even larger scale.
“When someone goes down, we tell the next guy, ‘Hey you’ve got to step up now man.’ Everybody on the Warriors’ team has stepped up and it’s helped us out a lot,” Luna said. “Sophomores have been stepping up; juniors have been stepping up. It’s awesome for us.”
One of Luna’s fellow linebackers, senior Josiah Alonzo, has been an integral two-way player for the Warriors as well. After starting the season as a defensive captain, he’s turned into an effective blocker and pass catcher on offense as well.
He’s still a top-flight defensive force with 35 tackles and four tackles for loss, but has also contributed 61 yards across six games as a slot receiver.
Senior James Gamez and junior Joey Partida fall into the same camp. Gamez — at one point the team’s backup quarterback — transitioned from primarily playing as ballhawking defensive back to an outside receiver, while Partida — who originally began as one of three primary running backs for Rowe — has become a stout defender in the secondary and a key contributor in the special teams game.
“It’s been huge for them to be able to tackle two roles. Two roles at a 6A level is huge and they’ve just stepped up to the challenge because of our injuries,” Rowe head coach Bobby Flores said. “We’ve lost some people along the way, so we just challenged them and said, ‘Hey this is what we’re going to need you to do.’ We haven’t had a single complaint and those kids (Josiah Alonzo, Derek Luna, James Gamez, Joey Partida) are as tough as they come. They’re out here, they work hard and they don’t miss a beat so they’re able to grasp what we’re doing on both sides.”
Rowe’s offensive production shows exactly just how effective their two-player approach has been working. In total, 15 Warriors have caught passes through the first six games and seven different receivers have caught touchdown passes.
Luna, Alonzo and Gamez — three primarily defensive players in the preseason — together have chipped in to account for 41.8% of the team’s receiving yards (428), 21 receptions and five touchdowns on the year.
“It’s a great feeling,” Ortiz said. “You have many receivers on the field and it makes me feel a little bit more comfortable about myself knowing that if this guy’s not open, maybe this other guy will be. It helps me because not only is that receiver capable of making a play, but the guy next to him is too.”
Luna credited Ortiz’s calm presence and veteran savvy for helping he and other defensive players integrate smoothly into the flow of the Warriors’ offense, while also teaching them a lot.
“He’s been helping me with little routes here and there. If he throws it up there, I’ll go get it. We’ve been playing (together) for a while, since middle school, so we have that connection. It’s been fun getting those passes.”
Partida’s transition, on the other hand, was a little bit different in that involved several dimensions of his game. On top of being one of the team’s primary ball carriers moving forward, he’s chipped in 196 yards and two touchdowns through the air, 14 tackles and a fumble recovery playing as a corner and several high-impact runbacks in the return game.
“As far as them being able to contribute for us, it’s been huge because they’re very good players and we’re able to match them up. For example, Joey Partida being able to play defensive back and match him up against a good receiver,” Flores said. “Josiah, having to use him as a receiver — you don’t hear about too much about linebackers playing receiver — but he doesn’t shy away from it. We’re blessed to have them and hopefully they will continue to play hard because we’re going to need them.”
Heading into the teeth of their schedule, the Warriors (6-0, 3-0) are fresh off a one-possession win over PSJA North and are preparing to dual against the high-octane offense of PSJA High (3-3, 2-1) on Thursday in McAllen.
For the Warriors to continue their hot start to the season and replicate the production they’ve found throughout their roster this season, Flores believes they have to stick to what’s worked for them so far and match their production regardless of who’s playing where.
“We’re going to do what we do best and continue to do what has gotten us here, but also at the same time we know that teams are going to prepare,” he said. “I know we’re going to play (PSJA North, PSJA High and Mission). It’s the meat; it’s the toughest part of our stretch and we’re going to have to continue to get better on both sides.”