Lone Star Gridiron

Bearkats top Bulldogs in Willacy County Cotton Bowl

claire cruz

Cotton Bowl – Raymondville @ Lyford

Small though it may be, Willacy County and its residents epitomize Texas. The people are kind, the community is strong and life is centered on three things: faith, family and football.

Every fall, the towns of Lyford (Bulldogs) and Raymondville (Bearkats) compete in the Cotton Bowl – a rivalry game so named to honor the deep agricultural roots in the county that has been played for over 70 years. In the summer, you’d be hard pressed to drive down a Willacy farm-to- market road and not be taken aback by the sight of acres upon acres of bright, white cotton.

The bleachers in Bulldog Stadium on Friday night were just as full as those fields, packed tightly with fans ready to cheer on their boys. Many in attendance were part of this storied rivalry in their own high school days.

One newcomer to the Cotton Bowl was Lyford’s first-year head coach Israel Gonzalez III, and though his Bulldogs were defeated by the Bearkats 35-20, he said the game lived up to its hype.

“I’ll tell you what, I’ve been a part of some big rivalry games in the past coaching at Harlingen with the Bird Bowl and the Battle of the Arroyo, but the Cotton Bowl’s up there,” Gonzalez said. “The communities are definitely proud of their kids and you’ve got families that live on both sides and play on both sides. It’s an extremely fun game to be a part of and I’m looking forward to being a part of it for many years to come."

His Bulldogs jumped on the board first with a five-yard touchdown run by Javier Gonzalez midway through the first quarter. Raymondville answered quickly with a touchdown run of its own from junior receiver Jacob Posas, who took the snap at quarterback.

The Bearkats extended their lead in the second quarter when senior quarterback Daniel Gutierrez hit junior Xavier Ledesma for a touchdown pass. Lyford promptly responded with a scoring toss of its own from senior quarterback Chase Hinojosa to Tristan Rocha. Due to a missed PAT and failed two-point conversion from the Bulldogs, Raymondville held a 14-12 advantage.

With the first half coming to a close, Raymondville’s offense was rolling and looking to increase its lead. The Bearkats handed off to their workhorse, junior running back Marcus Capetillo, inside the 10-yard line, but the ball was stripped by Lyford’s defensive lineman Justin Garcia. The big man then rumbled over 80 yards down the field before he was taken down at Raymondville’s four-yard line. His teammates and coaches on the sideline ran every step with him, jumping and waving their arms and shouting all the way.

The fans responded similarly, and the stadium became so electric Lyford had to call a timeout before running a play. Three tries later, Hinojosa hit senior receiver Chris Gonzalez for a touchdown. The two-point conversion succeeded to put the Bulldogs ahead 20-14 heading into halftime.

“It was probably the best fumble strip and run that I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Gonzalez said with a smile. “Justin did a great job and it was definitely a momentum changer and it got us going in the right direction at the time. [He’s] one of our core defensive linemen… and he went out and he made a big play. I’m extremely proud of his effort.”

The tide changed in the second half, and a game that looked to be a shootout ended up being dominated by Raymondville’s defense. After giving up 182 yards of offense in the first half, the Bearkats held the Bulldogs to just 39 yards in the second and forced four turnovers. The first was a fumble recovery that came midway through the third quarter, and then Lyford’s Hinojosa was picked off on consecutive drives by junior Deion Castillo. Two Raymondville scores came from the takeaways to give the Bearkats a 28-20 lead.

The icing on the cake for the Bearkats came with seven minutes remaining in the game, when Capetillo recovered a Lyford fumble and easily ran it 13 yards for a touchdown. Fans clad in green and gold started trickling from the stands after the play, but across the field
the blue and gold cheered louder than ever.

“We cleaned up our stuff on defense, we said ‘hey, stick with your keys. Stop trying to do everything, just do your part," Raymondville head coach Frank Cantu said. “And in the second half, our defense just played tremendous and stepped up and didn’t allow any points."

Lyford’s star senior running back Frank Moreno had his right arm in a sling in the second half, however Gonzalez said it was precautionary.  The Bulldogs are now 1-2 and on a two-game losing streak, but they’re far from hitting the panic button just yet.

“Sometimes you learn more from a loss than you do a win,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve had two losses back to back to two extremely good football teams and I feel like the preparation of playing these tough teams is going to help us in the long run. I believe there’s three seasons: there’s the non-district season, the district season and the playoffs. We’re gearing ourselves up. I’m proud of our kids’ effort and I know we’re going to move forward and be a better team for it.”

For the Bearkats, this game was another revenge win as they look to rebound from a disappointing 2016 campaign. They lost 49-7 in last year’s Cotton Bowl as part of a 0-4 start, but now they’re 3-0 and very confident this season is going to be successful.

“In small communities like this, you can have a good year and always look back and kind of regret that you weren’t able to pull this one off,” Cantu said. “We didn’t want to get there. We feel that we’re going to have a great year but we couldn’t get there and look back and say we didn’t get this one. It’s very fulfilling.”

by Claire Cruz

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