DONNA — When McAllen Rowe and Donna High met on the football field Saturday afternoon, the matchup had the early makings of a defensive standstill.
The Warriors led by a touchdown as the first quarter was nearing a close, as Donna took over in the shadow of its own goalpost searching for a response.
Running an up-tempo offensive attack, Donna High fired a slant pass over the middle that ricocheted off a receiver’s fully-extended hand. That’s when Warriors senior defensive back Jason Neal pinpointed the ball mid-flight, bounced it off his left hand and then his right before diving toward the turf to pluck the ball out of the air.
Neal made the spectacular snag, an interception that helped to jumpstart the Warriors’ offense, as he and his fellow defenders led Rowe to a 44-0 shutout over Donna High on Saturday at Benny LaPrade Stadium in Donna.
The victory marked the Warriors’ third straight win during a 15-day period, moving the team above .500 on the season and into sole possession of first place in District 16-5A DI’s west zone for the time being.
“We got off to a little bit of a slow start, but we’re obviously happy with this (result) after fighting hard in the second half because that’s what we’ve been working hard to do,” McAllen Rowe head football coach Bobby Flores said. “With all due respect to Donna, they’re a tough team also. We knew with their tradition and coaching staff that they would come out and do a good job, but I tip my hat to our coaches also for getting our guys ready and our kids for fighting hard.
“We’re happy we got the win. Now we’ve just got to get ready for next week.”
After senior running back Lorenzo Lopez scored the first touchdown of the afternoon, the Warriors capitalized on their excellent field position after Neal’s pick when senior quarterback James Gamez found senior wideout David Savage on a 28-yard touchdown pass to put Rowe on top 14-0 at the end of the first half.
That’s when the Warriors truly started to find their rhythm on both sides of the ball.
While Donna High started strong pushing the ball downfield, Rowe’s secondary elevated its level of play as the game progressed and effectively shut down Donna’s pass attack in the later stages of the contest.
On top of Neal’s interception and multiple fumble recoveries, the Warriors’ veteran crew of defensive backs led by Neal and fellow senior Adam Alvarado delivered bone-rattling hits that turned would-be catches into incompletions and punished the Donna receivers who dared to make a play in the middle of the field.
The Warriors’ defense also registered a safety as part of a huge third quarter after a botched snap by Donna rolled backward 25 yards and out of the back of the end zone after players from both teams scrambled to pick up the loose ball and couldn’t.
“Jason Neal and Adam Alvarado are both returning starters, so they are familiar with this atmosphere and these types of games,” Flores said. “I think overall their performance was great. Our defensive coaches have been getting them ready and they played well, but it was a complete team effort. I think our defensive line also played hard together to stop that run because No. 22 for Donna (Adan Reyes), he’s a football player. If you get him out in the open, he’s dangerous, but they’re young and we were able to slow them down which helped us.”
Donna’s rushing attack kept it in the game heading into the start of the second half, but the team’s offense couldn’t string together enough drives to keep pace with Rowe’s explosive offense which was firing on all cylinders.
The Warriors’ quarterback duo of Mateo Llanes and Gamez was especially effective on the ground and through the air. Gamez tossed Rowe’s only touchdown pass of the game to Savage, while Llanes, Lopez and senior back Nick Meehan added to the rushing onslaught which included five touchdowns on the ground for the Warriors.
Meehan scored on a 38-yard run down the visitor’s sideline, while Pacheco tallied the biggest gain from scrimmage on a 67-yard sprint to the end zone late in the second half.
Savage and senior tight end Gustavo Cruz, both of whom have missed time this season due to prior injuries, also played integral roles in Rowe’s passing attack, which flourished in the third and early fourth quarters.
“Donna came out playing tough upfront and made it difficult for us to run on them early, so we had to spread them out a little bit and get the ball out to our receivers. Now that we have (David) Savage back, we were able to do that,” Flores said. “That helped us a little bit and we were able to put in a couple of more sweeps. One was called back, a tough long one that (Diego) Pacheco had, but we got it going and that complemented our inside run and our quarterbacks.”
The victory also signifies an inflection point in Rowe’s season. After starting the year 0-2 with a pair of competitive road losses, the Warriors have won Wednesday, Monday and Saturday games against Brownsville Veterans, crosstown rival McAllen High and Donna, respectively.
The win moved them into sole possession of first place in the west zone in District 16-5A DI, likely securing the Warriors a spot in the district championship game or one of two 16-5A DI zone play-in games.
Donna High will return to the drawing board before taking on the McHi Bulldogs at 7 p.m. Thursday in McAllen, while the Rowe Warriors make their return to Friday night football when they meet the Memorial Mustangs in another crosstown rivalry game with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium.
“We’re very, very eager (to get back on a normal schedule) for the boys’ sake. We grind as coaches, but they’re the ones putting in the time,” Flores said. “When I talked to them afterward, I told them to enjoy it and rest because we’ve got a very interesting rival and a very tough opponent in the Mustangs coming up. We’re going to have to prepare because Coach (Bill) Littleton and those guys over there always present a tough task.”