EDINBURG — The Edinburg North Cougars and head football coach Damian Gonzalez were unsure of when or if they would get the chance to return to the gridiron this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has permeated the Rio Grande Valley over the past several months.
Gonzalez, an Edinburg North grad who used to take the field on Friday nights for the Cougars, his coaches and student-athletes waited and worked while the fate of the 2020 high school football season hung in the balance.
But despite the pendulum of uncertainty that swung back and forth between playing and delaying fall sports, Gonzalez and his Cougars came ready to roll and hit the ground running with the goal of reasserting Edinburg North as one of the RGV’s top-flight programs.
“It feels exhilarating, awesome and exciting. These guys are really excited to be out here, and I like what I’m seeing out here,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve got great numbers. The kids have been out here every day and they’ve done a great job of communicating with us.”
One of the tricky parts for Gonzalez and the Cougars football program, however, was figuring out how best to transition back to on-campus practices safely, which led to some creative solutions.
A private donor chipped in to help the Edinburg North athletic trainers and football players receive all the personalized gear they would need to enforce new social distancing measures, including sleek new titanium water bottles labeled with names and jersey numbers and touchless water cooler spigots on the sidelines.
“A parent actually talked to me and asked, ‘Coach, what’s the water situation going to be like?’” Gonzalez said. “That really got us to throw ideas back and forth, and we had someone that donated a whole bunch of money … We got them water bottles, masks personalized with our logo and bags personalized with their names, so everything goes in that one bag.
“Our trainers have done a great job of making just about everything hands-free. A coach will turn on the machine and the players will just hold their water bottles there so they don’t have to touch anything,” he added. “We’ve got a great support system here from our administration to our parents. They’ve done a great job at coming together and helping out these kids.”
Edinburg North punched its ticket to the postseason after a rocky start to the 2019 season.
The Cougars dropped their first five games of the year before roaring back down the stretch with big road wins against Edinburg High and Economedes before being bounced out in the bi-district round of the playoffs by San Benito.
Gonzalez and his group are hoping to build off that playoff experience, as North returns 33 varsity lettermen and 16 returning starters, seven on offense and nine on defense, which will make the Cougars the most veteran squad in the new-look District 31-6A.
“Any time you get a game in at the varsity level, it speaks volumes. But when you’re able to get to a playoff game, it means that much more. It carries a lot of weight,” Gonzalez said. “Being in a playoff atmosphere with such a young team is always big because we’re expecting to be in the playoffs this year. Our goal is to make the playoffs, try to win a district title and make a deep playoff run. Those are our goals this year, and they’ll be like that next year, the year after and three years from now, too.”
North’s offense will be tough to contain behind the leadership of senior dual-threat quarterback Micahel Rodriguez, who threw for 925 yards, ran for another 330 and scored 12 total touchdowns during the 2019 campaign.
Rodriguez will have plenty of weapons surrounding him in the Cougars’ spread offense, too.
He’ll be flanked on either side by senior receiver Miguel Contreras, a speedy 5-foot-9 pass-catching target, and sophomore wideout Richard Reyes, who should develop into one of the Valley’s toughest downfield coverage assignments as he grows into his towering 6-foot-6 frame.
In the backfield, the Cougars will be led by junior running back JeanCarlo Ruiz, who should be blanketed by one of the Valley’s biggest and oldest offensive lines, which should elevate the team’s offensive production and balance.
“There’s no substitute for experience. I’ve experienced it as a position coach here and as a player here,” Gonzalez said. “Our first year here when I was playing, we weren’t very good, but we had everybody come back the next year and we won a district title.
“It’s definitely going to give us a leg up on some of the other teams that are a little younger and may have had more tradition than us these past couple of years, but I have no doubt the experience we have will play a big part in the type of season we have this year.”
Defensively, the Cougars are anchored by a senior-led front seven that features some of the district’s biggest playmakers in defensive end Raul Gonzalez, linebackers Aurelio Lozano and Daniel Landun-Rodriguez, as well as junior defensive tackle Trebor Acuna.
“We have a wealth of experience coming back on both sides of the ball, especially the defensive side,” Gonzalez said. “It speaks volumes about our team. We’re excited to have them back.”