The Grulla Gators [kicked-off] the 2018 with high hopes that many experienced veterans and some promising youngsters will enable the team to reach the state playoffs and perhaps win a district championship.
The Gators, one of five teams in District 16-4A Division I, were scheduled to open the 2018 regular season in Rio Grande City on Friday night, Aug. 31 against St. Joseph Academy. They will play six non-district contests before opening district play at home against Hidalgo on Friday, Oct. 19.
Head Coach Abel Gonzalez III, about to begin his ninth season as the Gators’ gridiron skipper, commented, “We feel excited about where we’re at right now. We’ve made steady improvement throughout the preseason, including two good scrimmages…We’re excited about how we looked in the offseason.”
“We set high expectations every year,” insisted the coach. “Like every year, our foremost goal is to win the district title. We’ve had six playoff appearances in eight years, have won the district title once, and have reached the second round of the playoffs twice.”
Gonzalez emphasized, “We have a good nucleus of returning players, including our quarterback. We return more than half our starters on both offense and defense…The injuries last year required a lot of youngsters to get early playing time. We feel this added experience will pay dividends in the future.”
In its preseason edition, Texas Football magazine indicated that the Gators return 13 starters – seven on offense and six on defense – from a team that tied for second with a 2-2 district mark and lost to Pleasanton in the first round of the playoffs.
Concerning the offensive approach, Gonzalez explained, “We will continue to attack from the spread, but use multiple formations. Our philosophy is to have multiple playmakers and get our kids in space. We will try to be as balanced as we can, but we will emphasize running the ball. We will take what opposing defenses give us. We feel we have the athletes to make big plays in the passing game.”
Senior Dillen Salinas (175 pounds) will be the starting quarterback after recovering from an ankle injury that ended his 2017 season in game seven against Zapata. Gonzalez contended, “He was on pace to be the District MVP before his injury. He rushed for over 700 yards and passed for 741 yards and 10 touchdowns.” Texas Football magazine indicated that Salinas accounted for 1396 yards of total offense and 16 scores prior to his injury.
The head coach pointed out that Salinas “will wind up being our first four-year letterman and has competed in all major sports at the varsity level since he was a freshman. He has great leadership abilities and the kids believe in him…He’s in great shape and seems fully recovered from his injury; he had to work hard to bounce back. He’s expecting big things from himself.”
Salinas “is a huge playmaker,” stressed Coach Gonzalez. “He has great running ability, can make people miss, has breakaway speed, and is an accurate passer.” Salinas won first team All-District honors at wide receiver as a sophomore in 2016 and achieved second team honors at quarterback in 2017.
Sophomore Vidal Lopez (180) is expected to be a vital cog in the Gators’ rushing attack. Gonzalez indicated, “He was brought up after Dillen Salinas’ injury. He rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns against Hidalgo and rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown in the playoff game against Pleasanton.”
The coach predicted that Lopez “should be even more productive with Dillen Salinas healthy. He has great vision and great feet, along with great cutback ability and great strength. He has deceptive speed and great ability in the open field.” Lopez’s performance as a freshman enabled him to earn second team All-District honors.
Senior Benny Cantu (165) will also see significant action at running back. Gonzalez noted that Cantu was a starting running back in both his sophomore and junior years. He emphasized, “We really like his ability at running back. Injuries forced us to move him to the secondary. He will again see starting duty in the secondary.”
The Gators return three wide receivers that saw significant action in 2017. Junior Santiago Sifuentes (160) started all 11 games at an outside receiver position as a sophomore and gained second team All-District recognition. Gonzalez commented, “He’s a big target; we like his route-running ability and he has the capability to make big plays. He averaged more than 15 yards per catch.”
Senior Ruy Salinas (155) is another returnee at outside receiver. Gonzalez contended that he “is extremely quick, is a good route-runner and is very sure-handed. He played well at quarterback and ran the offense well after being forced to take over there. We expect him to have his best year as a senior. We’re looking for great things from both Santiago and Ruy.” Salinas also achieved second team All-District honors in 2017 at the wide receiver position.
Junior Jesse Garza (150) returns at inside receiver after gaining second team All-District recognition in 2017. The Gator skipper noted that Garza “finished third in the 200-meters last year. He is our fastest receiver; he has a tremendous work ethic. He does everything that a coach asks and plays with a lot of pride.”
Junior Joey Guerrero (145) and senior Axel Garza (160) are also available to help as inside receivers. Gonzalez referred to Guerrero as “very smart and he has above average speed. He’s coming up from the j.v. and may start in the secondary.” He declared that Garza, who was a starting defensive back for every game last year, “is available to help on offense.”
Junior Armando Ramirez (215) is the projected starter at tight end after receiving Honorable Mention All-District plaudits in 2017. Gonzalez explained that Ramirez “plays a mixture of fullback and tight end. He’s an excellent blocker and pass catcher. He may be the most versatile tight end our program has had. We will get him more involved in the passing game.”
The head coach noted that the offensive line returns two starters and contended that “we have good size and our line looks to be very athletic.”
Senior center Andrew Lopez (265), who achieved Honorable Mention All-District honors in 2017, is beginning his third season as a starter. Coach Gonzalez emphasized that “he’s our most experienced lineman and makes many of the needed offensive calls. He will anchor our offensive line; he has great understanding of our system.”
Senior left guard Miguel Salazar (250) is a two-year offensive line starter who was awarded second team All-District recognition last season. Gonzalez predicted that Salazar, the district’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2017, “will be one of our district’s best linemen on both offense and defense.”
Junior Ricky Slauenwhite (300) is the likely starter at right guard. The head coach indicated that “he saw some varsity action last year. He has good feet and should develop as he gains more experience. He should get better and better as the season progresses.”
Junior right tackle Jorge Vasquez (270) “is coming up from the j.v.,” stated Gonzalez. “He’s a very physical player and has good quickness and feet.”
Junior Rusbel Alaniz (240) is the probable starter at left tackle, with Gonzalez pointing out that he “saw some duty on the defensive line last year. He’s very mobile and has good quickness and strength.”
Concerning defensive strategy, Gonzalez stressed, “We will continue to be a 4-2 defense. We emphasize swarming to the football and having our kids in position to make plays. We will heavily utilize zone coverage in the secondary.”
The anchor of the defensive line will be senior tackle Miguel Salazar (250), the returning district Defensive Lineman of the Year. Salazar, contended the head coach, “usually wins one-on-one battles. He plays with great strength and leverage.” In 2017, Salazar collected 56 tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks.
Senior Luis Garcia (240) is likely to start at the other defensive tackle position. Coach Gonzalez commented, “We like his size and aggressiveness. He shows a lot of promise.”
Junior Armando Ramirez (215) will start at one defensive end position. Gonzalez emphasized, “He has great strength and quickness; he has good feet. He can rush the passer and stuff the running game.” Junior Moises Pena (215), who Gonzalez evaluated as “strong and quick”, will also see substantial action at defensive end.
Senior Joe Ramos (185) will be a three-year starter at an inside linebacker position after gaining first team All-District recognition in 2017. He recorded 100 total tackles, 59 solo tackles, three tackles for loss, three sacks and two fumble recoveries as a junior. The coach contended, “He’s an aggressive player and a sure tackler. He plays with a lot of emotion.”
Another option at inside linebacker, junior Jorge Lopez (205) “is coming up from the j.v.,” declared Gonzalez. “He will replace a three-year starter. He’s shown promising ability in stopping the run.”
Junior outside linebacker Braulio Garza (175) led the Gator defense with four interceptions last year on his way to achieving second team All-District plaudits. Garza also registered 33 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack, and returned a fumble 95 yards for a touchdown against McAllen Nikki Rowe. Gonzalez commented, “He has a very strong motor and creates a lot of big plays.”
Other candidates at outside linebacker are juniors LeeRoy Briones (145) and David Vasquez (180). Gonzalez evaluated Briones as having “excellent feet and good speed; he shows good aggressiveness.” He added that Vasquez “gives maximum effort all the time.”
Senior free safety Benny Cantu (165) is a vital component of the secondary after receiving first team All-District honors in 2017. Gonzalez noted that Cantu “is a three-year starter at multiple positions.”
Senior cornerback Diego Saenz (145) is another key player in the secondary. The Gator pilot stressed, “We like his coverage abilities. He’s playing with more and more confidence. He does attack the football.”
Senior cornerback Axel Garza (160) started all 11 games in 2017. Gonzalez contended, “He has a high motor and great ball skills.” Juniors Santiago Sifuentes (160) and Joey Guerrero (145) will also see substantial playing time in the secondary.
Dillen Salinas will again perform the punting duties as he has done since his sophomore year. Gonzalez indicated that Jorge Vasquez will handle kickoffs while sophomore Angel Garza will be called on to kick field goals and extra points.
Concerning the District 16-4A Division I outlook, Gonzalez commented, “La Feria returns a lot of skilled players and Kingsville is always tough. Zapata will be transitioning to a new coach and a very different system. Hidalgo should show significant improvement…Our team morale and expectations are very high...Our team’s fortunes will depend to a large extent on us staying healthy.”
After the season opener on Friday, Aug. 31, the Gators will play non-district home games against Donna North and Orange Grove on Sept. 14 and 21. They will launch district play at home on Oct. 19 against the Hidalgo Pirates. The Gators will host Kingsville on Thursday, Nov. 1 before concluding the regular season on Nov. 9 against the Zapata Hawks on the road.