HARLINGEN — Four quarters wasn’t enough to decide a competitive, back-and-forth 92nd edition of the Battle of the Arroyo between the Harlingen High Cardinals and San Benito Greyhounds.
Both defenses stepped up to make stops during the final five minutes of regulation to force overtime with the score tied at 24. The Greyhounds got the ball first, and senior kicker Yahir Reyes made a 42-yard field goal to give his team the edge.
Cardinals running back Kian Torres broke off consecutive strong runs, and Izaiah Bell followed suit to get Harlingen High to the 6-yard-line. Then, senior quarterback Joe Zuniga found receiver Tristan Vasquez alone in the end zone for the game-winning score, making it 30-27 and giving the Cardinals back-to-back Battle of the Arroyo titles.
“I want to dedicate this win to Mrs. Vivian Bauer, our principal. She lost her husband this week, so this game, this victory, is for her,” Cardinals coach Dan Gomez said. “Love conquers all, and these kids love each other, love the program, love the community and their school. Give credit to San Benito, their kids played hard. But the bottom line is the Cardinals won tonight.”
Gomez chose Vasquez to hoist the trophy after the win, and the senior said it was a moment he’ll never forget, even topping the catch on the winning pass.
“It was the best feeling ever with all my teammates right there in front of me, just the best feeling in the world,” Vasquez said. “(Making the catch) was a blur, but the game was fun as heck. It was a competitive game, and we could’ve played way better, but we’re going to turn up the rest of the season. I love these guys.”
Both teams let their passing game shine and the receivers put on a show, making great catches for big gains through solid coverage.
San Benito senior quarterback Elijah Hernandez got the Greyhounds rolling in the first quarter after both teams punted on their opening drives. He delivered a strike with pressure in his face to junior Jermaine Corbin to get into Cardinals territory, then connected with senior receiver Justyn Martinez for a 25-yard touchdown pass to get the scoring started.
Harlingen High answered by going 92 yards in three minutes. Zuniga, a southpaw, tossed to Justin Galvan, Ian Solis and Zach Sauceda for big gains. Sauceda made his catch while backpedaling to set up an 11-yard touchdown run from Zuniga to tie things at 7.
The defenses took center stage during the second quarter. Harlingen High’s Nathan Huerta, Ezvyn Zuniga and Christian Luna led a Cardinals defensive effort that shut down the San Benito running backs.
San Benito seniors Gabriel Sandoval and Aaron Reyes recorded consecutive sacks to shut down one Cardinals drive, and a swarm of Greyhounds forced a fumble recovered by junior linebacker Mauricio Padilla to end another.
After the fumble recovery, Hernandez again led the Greyhounds to the end zone. He hit Martinez and Corbin, and the receivers made good moves to pick up extra yards. Hernandez scored on a 6-yard carry to make it 14-7 in favor of San Benito.
Torres and Bell showed off their vision and elusiveness to get the Cardinals into the red zone, but a missed field goal attempt kept them off the board. San Benito threatened on the ensuing drive, but another Luna sack and a quarterback hurry resulted in a turnover on downs.
Harlingen High’s drive started at its own 27 with 0:54 on the clock, but it only needed 30 seconds to tie the game at 14 at halftime. Zuniga found Eric Quilantan for a 53-yard gain, then finished the job by hitting Vasquez for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
The Cardinals came out blazing in the second half. Zuniga and Justin Galvan linked up several times to quickly get into the red zone, but good coverage from Mariano Garcia and John Castro saved a touchdown. Cardinals kicker Joseph Garza made a 24-yard field goal to make it 17-14.
It was Zuniga and Huerta’s turn to record back-to-back sacks on the following drive to give the ball back to the Cardinals. But Castro stopped Harlingen High’s momentum by notching an interception.
Huerta and Luna led the Cardinals defense to force another Greyhounds punt. The snap was bobbled, and Harlingen High’s Paul Price recovered and returned the fumble to put his team on top 24-14 in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like we played great. There are some things we can work on and perfect, but overall we did really good,” Luna said. “I feel like I did great putting pressure on the quarterback, getting sacks and tackles. It’s an amazing feeling that’s hard to explain. The fact that we came out on top, it’s just, I can’t even explain it. It’s awesome.”
Hernandez again passed the ball and ran well to get San Benito rolling, but another Zuniga sack kept the Greyhounds from the end zone despite getting deep into Cardinals territory. Reyes made a 36-yard field goal to close the gap with 8:02 to play.
San Benito senior defensive end Zachary Galvan pressured Zuniga to keep Harlingen High from finding momentum. Senior defensive back Michael Banda intercepted a tipped pass and returned it roughly 45 yards for the pick-six to tie the game with 5:39 remaining and give his team a fighting chance at redemption from last year’s Battle loss, but the Cardinals earned the win in overtime.
“Very proud of the way they played,” San Benito coach Dan Gomez said. “They came out and battled for 12 rounds, just like we always tell them. Hat’s off to Harlingen for playing a good game, and to our kids for going out and competing to the end.”