Santa Maria, Santa Rosa preparing for shortened seasons

Santa Maria football players listen as assistant coach Amos Salas explains an offensive play. The Cougars returned to the field for practice on Sept. 29. By Claire Cruz, Valley Morning Star

Many sub-5A football teams across Texas were gearing up for Week 6 games when the Santa Maria Cougars and Santa Rosa Warriors were just hitting the field for their first practices.

The Warriors kicked off their season Sept. 28, and the Cougars got started Sept. 29. Both teams will be playing drastically shortened schedules and in zoned districts, but any chance to get under the Friday night lights will do.

“The kids know they’re getting an opportunity here, and they’re trying to take full advantage of it. Every day, they’re happy,” Warriors coach Hector Ayala said. “They bring that energy, and I think that’s great. The kids are doing a good job of staying home and trying to do the right things, because they understand it can change in a heartbeat and they want to be able to play.”

Santa Rosa’s District 16-3A Division II has the Warriors, Monte Alto, Hebbronville and Banquete playing in the South Zone. Skidmore-Tynan, Odem and Taft will play in the North. Santa Rosa opens its season Oct. 21 against Hebbronville and hopes to be playing Nov. 6 in a playoff seeding game, possibly with a district championship on the line.

Though the program did see a slight dip in participation due to the COVID-19 pandemic — Ayala said Santa Rosa has around 50 kids playing, while usually it’s closer to 70 — but the Warriors are excited about the experience on the roster. Ayala has mostly juniors and seniors on the squad, and he said they’re doing a good job “helping out the younger guys.”

Brave Munoz, Jorge and Jonathan Terrazas, Carlos Ortega and Andrew Ruiz are some players to watch on Santa Rosa’s defense. Ayala said Rene Flores will be a big contributor on both sides of the ball after being sidelined by injury last year. He’ll play safety, and help offensively in the backfield and at receiver.

Santa Rosa football players participate in drills at practice Thursday. The Warriors returned to the field for practice Sept. 28. By Claire Cruz, Valley Morning Star

Senior running back Jose Diaz-Mendez, an all-state honorable mention honoree last year, will be a focal point of the offense, along with senior quarterback Reese Lara. They’ll be playing behind a seasoned offensive line anchored by four seniors in Caleb Garza, Roland Segundo, Jonathan Perez and Adrian Carrera.

“(Lara had) been alternating with another young man for the past two years (at quarterback) and it’s his now, so he’s got the keys to the Corvette, as they say,” Ayala said. “We’re expecting big things from (him and Diaz-Mendez). We’ve got guys that are athletic and can contribute, so we’re hoping to have a good season this year.”

Santa Maria coach Israel Gracia said the Cougars also saw the program’s numbers go down some from his first season in 2019, but he understands the concern. He is pleased with the turnout and effort he’s getting from his team, which has “a consistent group of (about 25) players” coming out.

The Cougars will be facing only La Villa in District 16-2A Division I’s South Zone. Ben Bolt, Premont and Riviera-Kaufer make up the North Zone. Gracia said Santa Maria will open its season Oct. 22 against San Benito’s JV squad to shake off the rust before playing La Villa on Oct. 30. They’ll follow that game with a to-be-determined opponent from the North Zone with playoff seeding and potentially a district championship at stake.

“The winner between us (and La Villa) will play the winner between those other three for the district championship, and the loser will play the second place from over there for the third- or fourth-place slot,” Gracia said. “Our best shot is trying to win that one (against La Villa). It’s a very big game for both of us.”

Gracia said his offensive and defensive lines, which typically feature the same players, are veteran groups this season, and his skill positions are his younger kids. He believes the run game and the run defense box will be strengths for the Cougars.

Senior Bernie Castellanos “obviously is a standout” for Santa Maria and will be used in a number of positions, including receiver, quarterback, defensive back and kicker/punter. Chris Ibarra is getting a lot of reps at the quarterback position. Junior Eric Castellanos will contribute at running back and in the secondary.

Senior Gustavo Sandoval, Joshua Gonzalez and Rudy Flores are defensive leaders who also play big roles on offense. The Cougars are focusing on getting back into shape and “gradually implementing the offense and defense” in the early stages of the season, and they’re excited to get their chance to compete and inspire their community with their resilience.

“What I tell these boys every day is, it’s a blessing to be out here. With this pandemic going on, we didn’t even think this was going to happen,” Gracia said. “Win, lose or draw, my goal was to get out here and coach and play football. Our focus is to get ourselves better and teach them about commitment. Let’s teach them that with all the things going on in the world, a positive can come out of it. That’s what we’re trying to do — to be a positive for the community in light of this whole pandemic and everything.”