McALLEN — It only took seconds after the opening whistle and kickoff between McAllen Rowe and McAllen Memorial for the fireworks to start flying.
In the first Friday night game for either of the two crosstown foes in nearly a month due to a frantic rescheduling process spurred by games canceled due to COVID-19, the Mustangs and Warriors set a physical tone and upbeat tempo from the get-go.
Both defenses jarred fumbles loose on each team’s opening drive before setting off a scoring frenzy that set off a back-and-forth shootout, as the McAllen Memorial Mustangs escaped with a narrow 34-31 win over the McAllen Rowe Warriors in The Monitor’s Game of the Week on Friday night at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The victory marked the 10th straight for the Mustangs in the series and secured them both a District 16-5A DI west zone title and a spot in the district championship during the first week of December.
“I saw a lot of heart, the heart of a champion,” McAllen Memorial head football coach Bill Littleton said. “We were down at halftime, the kids came back and played a super, super third quarter. We battled and made a few mistakes in the fourth quarter, but tradition prevailed and we found a way to overcome.”
Senior running back Michael Lewis got the scoring started for Memorial on the third drive of the contest to score his first of a game-high three rushing touchdowns on the night.
Rowe quickly responded on the next drive with a six-yard touchdown run from Nelson Ramirez to tie the game up at 7, the first of three separate ties, before Memorial answered again with a 55-yard sprint to the end zone from senior back Andrew Salinas, the longest play from scrimmage of the game.
The Warriors, however, battled back throughout the second quarter and scored a pair of back-to-back touchdowns to seize a 21-14 advantage, the team’s first lead of the game, right before the half.
Rowe first knotted it up at 14 thanks to another touchdown run by slot receiver Rene Anzaldua and took the lead on a nifty back-corner fade pass from Warriors’ senior quarterback James Gamez to senior tight end Gustavo Cruz.
Gamez, who has split time at the quarterback position this fall, looked sharp both operating out of the pocket and making plays with his feet. His mobility helped the Warriors get big games out of Cruz and senior wideout David Savage, both of whom made several big plays in the open field to complement Rowe’s rushing attack.
“The effort all the way around was good,” Flores said. “They all performed well: our running backs and receivers that are a part of that senior group. They work really, really hard and they work well together.”
The Mustangs, though, came out of the gates in the third quarter looking like a team determined to retake the lead.
Memorial’s defense forced multiple key turnovers and pitched a defensive shutout in the third quarter, which allowed the team’s power-running game to take hold.
The Mustangs marched downfield twice on two long drives to find the end zone. Lewis scored his second touchdown on the ground midway through the third and junior running back Ethan Garcia scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to retake a 28-21 lead.
McAllen Memorial drove the length of the field once more to add a third Lewis rushing touchdown but had the extra-point attempt blocked and returned for two points to make it an 11-point, two-possession game with limited time remaining.
“Our offensive line did a super job. We made some adjustments at halftime with our blocking and we came out and really made a difference there in the third quarter,” Littleton said. “We were really coming off the ball and did a good job. The running backs ran hard too and I couldn’t be more proud of them. It was a team effort.”
Gamez pushed the Warriors upfield and hit Cruz on a crossing route in the end zone and added a two-point conversion to cut the Mustangs’ lead down to three with 2:20 remaining.
Rowe got three huge defensive stops and burned the rest of its timeouts to get the ball back needing a score to tie and a touchdown to win. The Warriors moved the ball down to the Memorial 30-yard line, but the Mustangs’ pass rush and secondary held on fourth down to preserve the team’s second last-second victory in the past two weeks.
“I thought both defenses played really well. We pounded each other all night long and we were fortunate enough to come out on top. I tip my cap to Coach Flores and his bunch. The Warriors played a heck of a ballgame and they’re a good football team,” Littleton said. “We’ve got to go play against a good Donna team Wednesday. They played awfully good the other night and we know they can play, so we’ve got to go take care of business. Donna, Texas, is always a tough place to play.”
“This is a tough loss,” Flores said. “Against a team like them, who likes to run the ball and take time off the clock, those (turnovers) hurt you a little bit. But we didn’t give up and we fought until the very end. That’s what it’s all about. Now we’ve just got to regroup because we’ve got a tough La Joya Palmview team coming up.”
Both teams will return to action for their regular-season District 16-5A DI west zone finales at 7 p.m. Wednesday. McAllen Memorial (4-1, 3-0) will travel to face Donna High (1-3, 1-2) in its first road game of the season, while McAllen Rowe (3-3, 2-1) will host La Joya Palmview (0-3, 0-3).