By ARMANDO GARZA
Special to the NEWS
PORT ISABEL – They took their shots. Boy, did they take their shots.
But the Rio Hondo Bobcats gave out a few of their own, too.
And with only 34 seconds left and four yards to glory in a tie game on the road on Friday night, the final haymaker in a slobber knocker football game was the one that mattered most.
Knotted at 14 against unbeaten Port Isabel, tough-running Marco Garate (130 yards rushing) took a handoff and crashed in for a four-yard touchdown which required the extra effort that exemplified Rio Hondo’s night.
The touchdown sealed a 21-14 win over the Tarpons which allowed the Cats (6-1 overall, 2-0 District 16-4A D-II) to exorcise the blue demons and assert themselves as a district power once again.
“I think the kids came out a little bit nervous, but we settled down and played good football,” Rio Hondo head coach Rocky James said. “They (Tarpons) were 6-0 so it was good to make ’em 6-1. This is huge for my seniors. They hadn’t beat PI. A lot of these guys hadn’t even beaten ’em in junior high. This was good for our coaches, too. It was a huge win.”
Port Isabel suffered its first loss of the year and played arguably its worse game of the season.
“Fumbles and turnovers killed us tonight and we gave up a couple of easy touchdowns, and you can’t do that against a good football team like Rio Hondo,” PI coach Monty Stumbaugh said. “It was a great football game. Both teams played hard and we just made mistakes at the wrong time and they (Bobcats) capitalized.”
The game was just as advertised: tough runs, hard hits, and a high-pressure, playoff-like atmosphere at a jam-packed stadium.
But there were also plenty of penalties, and turnovers. Oh, the turnovers.
The Tarpons (6-1, 1-1) got that trend started when they fumbled the opening kickoff inside their own 20. Rio Hondo’s Jose Garate alertly fell on the loose ball to set the Cats up prime.
But, the Cats promptly gave it back as PI’s Javi Hernandez recorded an interception to start the topsy-turvy theme of the night.
The Bobcat defense held on a long Tarpon drive, but once again turned it over, this time via fumble.
That was the crease PI needed as J.J. Gonzalez (198 yards rushing), who ran tough all night, zipped up the middle untouched for a 76-yard touchdown to give the Tarpons a 7-0 lead with 2:33 left in the first quarter.
As the defense held, the offense floundered but found a spark just before half.
From their own 31, Eli Pitones made a terrific throw to Derek Salazar, who did the rest of the work to complete a 69-yard pitch-and-catch score to tie the game with 16 ticks left before half.
“We got that touchdown late right before half and I think that fired the kids up,” James said. “We saw man-to-man on the outside and Derek made a helluva play. Derek’s one of my favorite kids. He’s been with us through it all.”
The second half was more of the same: Hard-nosed football and mistakes on both sides.
Andy Vasquez recovered a fumble for the Cats midway through the third and it resulted in a Pitones-to-Josue Garza 62-yard touchdown hookup to give Rio Hondo a 14-7 edge at the 4:47 mark of the third.
PI fought back and tied the game on the first play of the fourth quarter when Gonzalez showcased his speed on a 24-yard touchdown run to knot the game at 14 with 11: 55 mark of the fourth.
Punts and sacks followed, and it was a Port Isabel turnover that opened the door for the Cats.
With the Tarpons poised to drive down the field and take hold of the game, the Cats’ Albert Magallanes and Ruben Hernandez shared a fumble recovery on a bad PI snap to give the ball back to Rio Hondo and set up the drive of the year for the Cats.
“I told everybody, this defense can play,” James said. “They’re a helluva team running the football. They proved it tonight. Time after time we stepped up and got big turnovers and especially down the stretch, and that was a big one.”
With 4:40 to go at their own 44, Rio Hondo methodically drove down the field on the legs of Garate and Pitones and an alert throw to Salazar in between.
That led to the late heroics where the Cats had to execute, and they did just that.