PHARR — Mission High junior quarterback Jeremy Duran stood under center with his team on the edge of the red zone in the third quarter looking to put his team back on the board.
Duran looked left, motioned his tight end and fullback toward the near sideline and dropped back to pass. The Eagles’ quarterback stepped up into the pocket and rifled a bullet pass over the middle into the hands of wideout Jose Cortez.
The 17-yard strike was Duran’s second of three total touchdowns, but the story of the night wasn’t what the Eagles’ offense could do but instead what the team’s defense was able to accomplish. The Mission High defense tallied four takeaways, numerous sacks and a shutout to top the PSJA High Bears 30-0 in a highly-anticipated District 31-6A grudge match game Thursday night at PSJA Stadium.
“I thought the kids came out really focussed. We were able to have some success early there and our defense was able to bow up and get that stop on the first drive,” Mission High head football coach Koy Detmer said. “The offense did a great job, then the defense got rolling and they played off each other. That was great to see.
“Our kids really came out ready to get after it tonight.”
Mission was motivated to start strong after falling in a shootout to PSJA High last fall that cost the team a shot at a solo district title and did so.
The Eagles jumped out to an early edge thanks to a pair of quick touchdowns on a four-yard run from senior back Andrew Maldonado, which was set up by a 41-yard pass from Duran to Jose Cortez along the sideline, and a 12-yard pass from Duran to receiver Gilberto Bernal with 5:11 to go in the first quarter.
Then both defenses took center stage, as the Bears and Eagles turned the ball over back and forth like a game of hot potato. The two sides combined to account for seven turnovers on the night, five of which came during a hectic second quarter.
The Eagles collected two strip-sack fumbles, one caused by defensive tackle Dante Lopez and the other by safety Luis Briseño who each had monster games. Dante Lopez added three sacks to his forced fumble, while Briseño tacked on a fumble recovery and second-half interception too.
“We see them every day in practice. Those guys fly around and they are really outstanding,” Detmer said. “They’ve been doing a great job and it’s great to see when you get those shutouts. That’s not easy, especially when you’re going up against an offense like this. They’re a high-caliber offense, so getting a shutout was a big deal. I can’t say enough about that defensive play and you saw it up front and in the back end. I’m very proud of our defense tonight.”
PSJA High’s defense met the challenge of defending one of the Valley’s most versatile offenses head-on, however, and halted the Eagles a few times with big goal-line stands and takeaways just before halftime.
On the last two Mission drives before the half, the Bears held the Eagles to a short field goal inside the five-yard line and then intercepted a pass in the end zone with 6 seconds before the end of the half.
The Bears were limited offensively, however, by turnovers early and penalties late which prevented the team from generating any consistent momentum or rhythm often after taking over with poor field position.
PSJA High freshman quarterback Jaime Lopez rushed for well over 100 yards on the ground but struggled to spread the ball through the air with the exception of a few big plays by junior receiver Viggo Lopez and sophomore wideout Andrew Castillo.
Mission High, meanwhile, regrouped in the locker room and came out with a laser-like focus to start the second half.
“During that little lull, we did some things that kind of hurt ourselves and didn’t do some routine things well. That set us back a little bit offensively. It just put us off the field because we weren’t picking up first downs anymore,” Detmer said. “At halftime, we talked about that: making routine plays and executing our offense and system. I thought the guys came out and did a great job of that in the second half. We put it on the linemen and they like that. We rode those guys in the second half and it was great to see them come off the ball and be able to run the ball downhill a little bit.”
That’s when Duran found Jose Cortez in the back of the end zone to take a commanding 24-0 lead early in the third quarter. Duran later added his third score of the night on a one-yard QB keeper that made it 30-0 after a missed PAT.
For the second week in a row, though, the breakout star of the Eagles offense has been running back and slot receiver Damian Cortez, who racked up a majority of Mission’s yards through the air and the ground despite not finding the end zone on the night.
“He’s doing an outstanding job. The thing he does so well is that the first (defender) rarely tackles him,” Detmer said. “He’s got great balance and good field vision. He’s doing an outstanding job of getting yards after contact so that’s a big deal for you offensively when you’re trying to keep moving the chains.”
The Mission Eagles (2-0, 2-0) have a scheduled bye for next week, while the PSJA High Bears (0-2, 0-2) will host the rival PSJA North Raiders (2-1, 1-1) in the Tri-City Classic with kickoff set for 7 p.m. Thursday at PSJA Stadium in Pharr.