PSJA North Guarionex Garcia (1) scoops up a fumble after a strip by teammate Micah Lopez (31) of PSJA Ethan Castillo (5) during the first half of a high school football game at PSJA Stadium on Friday Oct.4, 2019 in Pharr. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

PHARR — Mark Lopez still remembers his first Tri-City Classic rivalry game, the first-ever meeting between the PSJA High Bears and PSJA North Raiders.

As a senior, Lopez, a former defensive standout at safety for PSJA High, prepared to take on the newly formed PSJA North football team which was filled with his former Bears’ teammates.

“I played in the first annual Bear-Raider game in 1992,” he said. “It was a lot friendlier, I think, that first year because both sides were on one full team (before that) back in the day,” he said. “We were excited to see our old buddies, but we were eager to strap on the pads and try to win for our schools. Now 28 years later, it’s progressed into a crosstown rivalry. This rivalry has a lot more history behind it and everybody wants to have those bragging rights.”

It’s a story Lopez’s oldest son, Micah, has heard many times hearing his dad and uncles talk about the earliest days of the Tri-City Classic rivalry and what it meant back then to the communities of Pharr, San Juan and Alamo.

“He told me they lost that first game against the Raiders,” Micah Lopez said. “He told me it came down to the last drive and the atmosphere was pretty much the same or a little less big than it is now, but that’s just how crazy this game is.”

The Bears-Raiders rivalry is one that blurs family lines and has become one of the Rio Grande Valley’s most entertaining gridiron rivalry games.

“You never know what to expect in this rivalry and no matter what, these teams always match up evenly,” Mark Lopez said. “It’s a four-quarter game. Last year PSJA North flew high during the first half and then PSJA High adjusted, came back and pulled it out. You’ve got to play a full four quarters in this rivalry, so you can throw the stats and standings out when the game kicks off.”

“In those two games, I think those were the only two times I’ve seen PSJA Stadium get completely full. That’s when it fills up the most. That’s when most of the fans around the area come and watch. Even fans from outside the area come into town to watch the Bears-Raiders rivalry game,” Micah Lopez said.

“On the field, I think I get the most anxious I get all season during that game because of the crowd noise and knowing that it’s a rivalry game, your emotions are high and your adrenaline is pumping … everything is always so crazy that I just always try to focus on my job on the field.”

Now, Lopez and a rising group of second-generation Bears and Raiders are ready to bring PSJA’s longest-running crosstown rivalry back to the field and into a new generation when the two teams battle for bragging rights for the 29th time in series history at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Pharr.

Both PSJA North and PSJA High enter with freshman quarterbacks starting behind center that should transform the nature of this rivalry for years to come.

However, the Raiders believe they’ve found the RGV’s next great gunslinger in freshman quarterback Sergio Aparicio, who ranks third in District 31-6A in passing yards (447) and second in rushing (300) only behind his team’s running back Isaac Gonzalez.

“His maturity and poise for a freshman is on another level. When I’m on the sideline whenever he’s on the field, I believe he can make plays and march our field down the field and score,” Micah Lopez said of Aparicio. “That gives us time to rest, go out there and run 1,000 miles an hour on defense, so I truly believe he’s going to lead our offense because of his maturity, poise, his way of thinking on the field and his play-making ability.”

On the opposite sideline, the Bears are also confident they’ve found the heir apparent to the Valley’s preeminent passing attack in freshman Jaime Lopez.

Lopez has shown his speed on the ground when moving outside of the pocket and has been responsible for all three of PSJA High’s touchdowns this year.

However, if recent series history is any indicator, this should be a defensive battle between two veterans defensive groups in Year 1 for Aparicio and Lopez.

Lopez and junior safety Cookie Ramirez anchor a physical PSJA North Blackshirt defense with one of the Valley’s most explosive front sevens. Lopez is the key to the front seven’s success shifting between linebacker and defensive end to tally a team-high 48 tackles and six tackles for loss.

“Both teams want those bragging rights for a year and you can throw out those records because they don’t matter in this game.”

“We usually prepare for this game like any other type of game, but we take the intensity up a notch because it’s a rivalry game. We just have to try to control our emotions and not let them get to us or bite us on the field. We treat this game like any other game but it means a little more.”

PSJA High, meanwhile, boasts one of the Valley’s top secondaries led by senior defensive backs Isaac Espino and Nevin Herrera and a unit that has consistently succeeded in nabbing interceptions and forcing fumbles.

It’s a matchup that should boil down to the final possession again with both teams trying to punch their tickets back to the playoffs, while the Raiders hope to challenge for a zone and district championship.

More than anything, though, fans and players involved in this rivalry are just happy to see the Bears and Raiders play again during a season defined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every year it’s one of those games you like to come back and watch and it’s even more special now that I have my own sons playing in it. We’re not wearing the same colors, but at the end of the day we’re all still a PSJA family,” Mark Lopez said.

“I bleed maroon, I’ll always be a Bear and an alum,” he added. “Now that the next generation is playing for the opposite side, it’s interesting but at the end of the day our grandmas, aunts and uncles all still come out and cheer for both sides because even though this is a rivalry, this is a PSJA house that’s always united.”

For the younger Lopez and his fellow PSJA North seniors, who have never beaten the Bears in their high school careers, it’s about making the most of their opportunity to take the field for this iconic rivalry game one final time. A Raiders’ win will also narrow the Bears’ lead in the all-time series to 9-8 since 2004.

“I know the past couple of years this has been a district game, but this year it’s also a zone game and there’s only three teams within our zone so this game means a lot for bragging rights and playoff seeding. If we win this game, we play Mission for our zone championship so this game goes a long way toward that too,” he said. 

“To finally beat them my senior year, our senior class would have bragging rights for life and we would start the next 4 or 5 years of tradition for these younger guys here at North. This game means a lot to our seniors and underclassmen.” 

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch