Cardinals lose to Falcons in close playoff contest

Harlingen High Cardinals senior quarterback Joe Zuniga (4) runs the ball during a Class 6A Division I area round game against the San Antonio Stevens Falcons on Saturday at Buccaneer Stadium. The Cardinals fell to the Falcons, 28-21, to end their season. By Claire Cruz, Valley Morning Star

CORPUS CHRISTI — The Harlingen High Cardinals saw their season end in the area round of the Class 6A Division I playoffs Saturday at Buccaneer Stadium.

The Cardinals held a 21-7 lead over the Northside Stevens Falcons after three quarters of play. But the Falcons scored three times during the fourth quarter and grabbed their third turnover of the game in the final seconds to seal a 28-21 win.

“I don’t think there’s a coach in this world that can say that it’s fun losing, especially in a hard-fought game like this when you’re up by two touchdowns,” Cardinals coach Manny Gomez said. “If I could scream, I would scream right now. We had our opportunities, but we didn’t take full advantage of them and I’ll take full blame for that. Resiliency (is) what we’re all about, we fight to the end and that’s what we were doing. But (Stevens) made a play at the right time … so my hat’s off to them, and I wish them the best of luck.”

Stevens scored the first points of the game on its opening drive as quarterback KK Brashears rushed for a 7-yard touchdown. The Falcons also got the first of five combined first-half turnovers as linebacker Darius Ellis notched an interception.

Harlingen High did take advantage of one of the three turnovers it forced during the first half. On the ensuing drive, Cardinals linebacker JC Moradel stripped the ball from a Falcons receiver, and Hunter Rodriguez recovered. After a Cardinals punt, cornerback Juan Garcia intercepted a Stevens pass to set up Harlingen High’s first scoring drive.

Cardinals receiver Tristan Vasquez and running back Izaiah Bell got Harlingen High into first-and-goal territory. Senior quarterback Joe Zuniga capped the drive with a 4-yard keeper to tie the game at 7 late in the first quarter.

Harlingen High’s defense got the Falcons’ offensive line to commit four consecutive false start penalties after the score, resulting in a punt and the Cardinals’ fired-up offense quickly returning to the field. Two more flags, this time on the Stevens defense, helped Harlingen High promptly enter the red zone.

Zuniga connected with tight end Ian Solis for a big gain, then hit Vasquez with a 7-yard touchdown pass to take a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter. Stevens threatened to score late in the frame, but the Cardinals recovered a fumble after a catch to hold the lead at the break.

Both defenses kept the opposing offenses in check for much of the third quarter. Linebacker Mateo Lara and defensive linemen Joshua Gonzalez and Corey Amos stymied Harlingen High’s run game for much of the contest and made big stops to get Stevens the ball. But the Cardinals countered defensively with solid play from Moradel, Garcia, linebacker Ezvyn Zuniga and defensive end Nathan Huerta to keep Stevens off the board.

While the ground game sputtered, the Cardinals found consistent success in the air. Vasquez and Justin Galvan challenged the Falcons’ secondary and fought for extra yards after catches. Big receptions by the receiving duo and a pair of defensive pass interference calls set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Zuniga to extend the Cardinals’ lead to 21-7.

With his team trailing by two touchdowns heading into the final quarter, Stevens coach Anthony Boykin delivered a simple message that sparked a big turnaround.

“It was really just staying the course and doing the things that we’ve been coached to do,” Boykin said. “We always talk about, ‘Do your job,’ and it finally clicked in. Defense held us down for a long time, but it finally clicked in offensively.”

The Falcons weren’t very productive on the ground either, but the passing game that was initially contained by Harlingen High’s Garcia, Paul Price and Eric Quilantan went to work during the last 12 minutes. Defensive back Jaiden Lopez broke off a huge punt return that led to a 10-yard touchdown pass from Brashears to running back Dominic Cardenas early in the fourth.

Jeremiah Sorola, Luis Paz III and Efrain Mejia stepped up defensively for Stevens to force a Harlingen High punt in Cardinals territory. The snap flew over the punter’s head, and Lara raced to recover the loose ball in the end zone for the score. The Cardinals blocked the PAT to maintain a slim 21-20 lead with 7:40 remaining.

Good coverage from defensive back Leonard Adams, who played well throughout the game, and solid run defense from the Stevens defensive line forced another Cardinals punt. Cardenas was efficient on the ground during the following drive, and a fourth-down conversion rush by Brashears kept the Falcons in business. Brashears found receiver Ian Riles for a 22-yard touchdown pass, then the quarterback rushed for the 2-point conversion to get the Falcons back on top 28-21 with three minutes to play.

Harlingen High’s offense was driving well as Zuniga connected with Galvan, Zach Sauceda and Aiden Sandoval to set up first-and-goal. But a false start penalty pushed the Cardinals back, then a pass to the end zone was intercepted by Lara to clinch a third-round berth for Stevens.

“It’s big for our community, our school, and the way that we did it, by coming back against a great Harlingen team, is pretty exciting,” Boykin said. “(Lara) was letting it loose tonight. He’s a little guy, but he was flying around tonight. He played big in that interception. I’m just proud of our defensive effort.”