The Grulla Gators are enthusiastically preparing for the 2019 football season with high hopes and optimism that a large group of experienced returnees and some promising youngsters will enable them to have an excellent season and perhaps win a district title.
According to the Texas Football preseason magazine, the Gators return 13 starters – seven on offense and six on defense – from the 2018 team that achieved the fourth place playoff berth from District 16-4A Division I. The Gators were defeated in the first round playoff game by LaVernia.
Gators Head Coach Abel Gonzalez III, who has coached the team since the school opened in 2010, emphasized in late August, “We have high hopes for the coming season…We return a lot of experienced players on both sides of the ball. We return a lot of outstanding skill position players…We’re excited about the sophomore group coming in. We think a handful of sophomores will see significant action…Our summer camp and preseason workouts have gone very well.”
Gonzalez predicted, “If we stay healthy and show needed improvement, the Gators should be right in the hunt (for the district title).”
The Gator skipper pointed out that “last year was a record-setting season on offense and we hope that trend continues.” He noted that quarterback Dillen Salinas set numerous school offensive records as he ran and passed for almost 2700 yards.
Concerning the offensive approach, Gonzalez commented, “We will continue to use multiple formations and personnel groupings on offense…Passing might be more of a factor than in past years, and there might be fewer quarterback designed runs…Our running game should be more centered around our running backs…We could possibly throw more to our running backs this year.”
The head coach acknowledged that “replacing a two-year starter at quarterback involves a transition period, but we like what we see at the quarterback position.” Junior J.T. Trujio (160 pounds) is the projected starter at quarterback. In limited 2018 action, Trujio completed 12 of 20 passes for 100 yards and rushed for 26 yards.
Gonzalez stressed that Trujio “is very smart; he has a high football IQ. He’s very coachable and has the right demeanor to lead the team. He has good passing abilities and has a strong arm. He can throw the ball deep and can pass the ball into tight spaces. He will be helped by an experienced group of receivers.”
Sophomore Austin Garcia (150) is also available if needed at quarterback. Gonzalez declared that “he also has good passing abilities.”
The running attack will be paced by junior running back Vidal Lopez (200), who has started since the middle of his freshman year. Lopez scampered for 950 yards on 193 carries and scored six touchdowns in his sophomore season. Lopez rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns against Donna North, scampered for 124 yards and two scores against Hidalgo, and motored for 129 yards against Zapata. Gonzalez evaluated him as “a bruising, physical type of running back. He has good quickness, can read blocks well, and has good vision.”
Senior Jonathan Huerta (190), a transfer from Rio Grande City, is another option at running back. Gonzalez commented that Huerta “is very similar to Vidal Lopez in his running style. He could provide significant help to our running game.”
The receivers, led by seniors Jesse Garza (165) and Santiago Sifuentes (165), are a definite team strength. Garza caught 61 passes for 846 yards and paced the entire Valley with 17 touchdown catches. He also ran for 204 yards on 27 carries and scored one touchdown. Sifuentes hauled in 41 receptions for 500 yards and six scores. Both Garza and Sifuentes have been starters since their sophomore seasons.
In the playoff game against La Vernia, Garza caught five passes for 117 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard scoring catch, and returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. He caught six passes for 122 yards against St. Joseph Academy, and collected four receptions for 99 yards and two scores against Rio Hondo. Sifuentes accumulated 131 yards and three scoring catches against St. Joseph.
Coach Gonzalez stressed, “Jesse Garza is a speedster who qualified for regional in the 100-meters…Garza can score from any point on the field and is a deep threat. We’ve been successful running him on jet sweeps, and he can stretch the field vertically. Jesse Garza is the hardest worker on the team.” Gonzalez praised Sifuentes as “an excellent route-runner and possession receiver with excellent hands.”
Senior Joey Guerrero (160) should see plenty of action at slot receiver, as well as seeing substantial playing time at cornerback on defense. He caught 5 passes for 41 yards in 2018. Sophomore Josue Barrera (180), who Gonzalez commended as “a big and physical receiver with speed”, will also see significant action at slot receiver.
Gonzalez indicated that junior Chris Luera (165) “should be a solid, sure-handed possession receiver.” Sophomore Roy Guzman (150) and senior Lee Roy Briones (155) are also candidates for playing time at outside receiver.
Jesse Garza and Vidal Lopez were unanimous first team All-District selections due to their 2018 performances, and Sifuentes won second team honors at both outside receiver and defensive cornerback.
Senior tight end Armando Ramirez, a second team All-District selection, returns for his third season as a starter. The coach explained, “He also sees action at fullback. His blocking greatly helps our running game.” In 2018, Ramirez caught five passes for 71 yards.
With three returning starters, the offensive line is projected to be a team strength. Senior left tackle Rusbel Alanis (250) was a unanimous first team All-District honoree in 2018. Gonzalez contended, “I feel Rusbel Alanis will be the best (offensive) tackle in the district.” Also returning as a starter is senior right tackle Jorge Vasquez (290), who received second team All-District recognition. The coach emphasized, “We expect a lot from our tackles.”
Another returning starter is senior right guard Ricky Slauenwhite (310). Senior Dereck Garcia (220), who saw the bulk of his playing time in 2018 on defense, is expected to be the starting left guard. Senior Jorge Lopez (200) is the likely starter at center. Sophomore Lupe Bazan (250) should see ample playing time at offensive guard.
The Gator skipper commented that Lopez “is coming along really well at center; he’s really quick and strong. We think Lupe Bazan can accomplish really good things. We feel we have a really good offensive line unit.”
The Rattlers return six defensive starters from the 2018 team. Gonzalez insisted, “We feel our defense has taken huge strides in preseason workouts. I think we should have more athleticism on defense this year…We’ll use the same 4-2 defense this year. I think we’ll be able to get to the ball a lot quicker and be more athletic.”
A returning defensive standout is senior defensive end Moises Pena (200), who accumulated 65 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, and three sacks last year as he earned second team All-District honors. Gonzalez declared, “He has great feet and is extremely strong.”
Sophomore Jovanny Lopez (190) will be the other defensive end starter. The coach predicted, “We think he will be a good complimentary player to Moises Pena.” The Gators will rotate junior Miguel Galvan (250), sophomores Benjamin Rios (240) and Abelino Lopez (200), and senior Luis De La Cruz (240) at the defensive tackle positions. Offensive line starters Jorge Vasquez and Jorge Lopez could also see spot duty at defensive tackle.
At inside linebacker, the expected starter is sophomore Jorge Guerrero (180). Gonzalez praised him as “very athletic and he should bring good playmaking ability. Sophomore Deric Amaro (160), junior Vidal Lopez (200), and seniors Jonathan Huerta (190) and Hector Herrera (180) are available to help at inside linebacker.
The head coach contended that senior outside linebacker David Vasquez (170), who moved in as a starter late in the 2018 season, “should be one of our defensive leaders.” Senior Braulio Garza (160) started at the position for most of the past two years, and junior Margarito Alaniz (180) saw significant playing time last year.
In the secondary, the projected starters are sophomore free safety Josue Barrera (180), junior cornerback Joey Guerrero (160), and senior cornerback Santiago Sifuentes (165), a second team All-District selection in 2018. Both Sifuentes and Guerrero are returning starters at cornerback. Sophomore Roy Guzman (150) and senior Lee Roy Briones (155) are available to help at defensive back if needed, and Jesse Garza is also available for secondary spot duty.
J.T. Trujio will carry out the punting duties, and Jorge Vasquez will perform placekicking chores. Vasquez converted 24 extra point attempts during the 2018 season.
Regarding the Division 16-4A Division I outlook, Coach Gonzalez predicted, “I think the district will be very competitive this year. I expect Hidalgo to take major steps forward. La Feria brings back a lot of depth from an extremely successful season. On paper, they look like the team to beat. Both Kingsville and Zapata return a lot of talent and experience. Every district game will be a battle.”
The Gators opened their 2019 season on Friday night, Aug. 30 on the road against St. Joseph Academy in Brownsville. Their home opener is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m. against the Raymondville Bearkats. The Gators will play six non-district games before starting district play on Friday, Oct. 18 against the Hidalgo Pirates on the road. Their district home opener will take place on Thursday, Oct. 24 against the La Feria Lions.
The Gators are hopeful that many returning veterans and some talented newcomers will enable the team to step up in the district standings and possibly win a district title. They also are confident that expected defensive improvements will help them have an outstanding season.