SAN JUAN — PSJA High head football coach Lupe Rodriguez, a long-time fixture in the Rio Grande Valley’s high school football scene, has always maintained a winning culture at each of his stops.
As a gunslinging quarterback for Mission High in the mid-1980s, he helped deliver the Eagles back-to-back district championships.
Now entering his fifth season as the Bears’ head coach, though, Rodriguez has also helped PSJA High win back-to-back golden balls again, splitting 2019’s 30-6A crown with the Eagles and McAllen Memorial Mustangs.
But after a long layoff amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a new gauntlet of a district in which to compete, the Bears are primed and ready to launch their defense of a second straight district championship.
“It feels great to finally be back on the gridiron with our athletes,” Rodriguez said. “It’s been long overdue.”
“It’s a very exciting feeling for me and my teammates,” Bears senior defensive back Isaac Espino said. “It’s something we all were uncertain of happening, and now that they allowed a season (to happen), we couldn’t be any happier to be out there.”
During the Rodriguez era, PSJA High has thrived as a high-flying, offensive juggernaut as the Valley’s preeminent pass-heavy program.
In 22 games over the past two seasons, the Bears’ offense averaged a staggering 312.4 passing yards and 33.6 points per game, while the team went 14-8 during that stretch.
Most of the starters from those squads, however, have now moved on as PSJA High graduated one of the most decorated senior classes across the RGV in recent years. As a result, the Bears return six total starters — three on offense and three on defense — from the 2019 squad, as this year’s team will likely be one of the youngest in District 31-6A in 2020.
“We lost a lot of talented skill players, but we feel that our young core of receivers will step up and accept the challenge,” Rodriguez said.
Offensively, the Bears biggest returning playmaker will be junior wideout Viggo Lopez, who committed to play college baseball for the Texas Longhorns over the summer.
Lopez, who played primarily out of the slot last season as part of a crowded receiving corps, was the team’s fourth-leading receiver last season with 34 receptions for 295 yards and a touchdown through the air.
The combination of the junior receiver’s 6-foot-2 frame and speed will make him one of the Valley’s premier deep-ball threats and a reliable pass-catching option for a young PSJA High offense.
“It’s always great when you have a receiver as experienced as Viggo Lopez coming back as a go-to target that (our quarterbacks) can depend on,” Rodriguez said. “I feel that our QB, whoever wins the position, will be ready to step up for the challenge and expectations of the shoes to fill left behind by Trey Guajardo and Justin Morales. They have been great leaders and examples to our up-and-coming QBs of the future.”
Rodriguez added that sophomore receiver Andrew Castillo and first-year varsity senior wideout Jose Zaleta should also make big splashes in the Bears’ passing game, while he expects running backs Mario Ayala, Raul Reyes and Lee Torres to contribute in the backfield and as slot receivers.
Freshman Jaime Lopez and junior Ramzi Omar are duking it out daily in practice for the right to follow up eye-popping senior seasons from Guajardo and Morales.
Ironically, however, while normally the PSJA High secondary is tested daily in practice lined up across from their offensive counterparts, but this season — for now anyhow — the Bears veteran pass defense has been testing the team’s new-look offense.
“Our defense has been a key ingredient to our success and it plays a big role. Going into a new district, I feel how well our defense plays will dictate and help our offense get more touches a game. We have a great defensive staff and they do a great job,” Rodriguez said. “Oh most definitely, facing our defense in practice makes us that much better. It’s the worst-case scenario, but it makes it that much easier in games.”
PSJA High’s secondary made a name for itself enforcing a no-fly zone throughout most of its district competition last season. Despite having to replace multiple all-district linebackers and defensive linemen, though, the Bears return most of their defensive backs which helped them become one of the RGV’s top pass defenses a season ago.
“(We’ll be) just as good or even better,” Espino said. “We lost one safety last year and four linebackers, but I believe they’ve been replaced just fine, so we are expecting to be just as shut down (as we were last season) in the pass and in the rush.”