PHARR — PSJA High quarterback Jaime Lopez recalls being in the stands during the Bears’ last postseason appearance. The then-eighth-grader watched from the bleachers in 2019 as the Bears fell 42-31 to Eagle Pass during the Class 6A DII bi-district round.
One year later, Lopez was thrust into the limelight at PSJA High, taking over as the team’s starting quarterback as a freshman. His first two seasons at the helm weren’t perfect, with the Bears tallying a 5-10 mark between 2020-2021.
This season, however, Lopez has been a catalyst in the Bears’ return to the postseason, highlighting a young group of individuals ready to lead the Bears into the postseason for the first time since that loss in 2019.
“It was a crazy game,” Lopez said. “I didn’t expect them to lose that one. They had a lot of big dawgs from Jacob Sanchez to Justin Morales. It was a good team. It feels great being able to bring my team back into the playoffs after two years that weren’t so good. It’s just exciting. I feel like all these guys are ready.”
Lopez posted career highs in passing yards (2,605) and passing touchdowns (23) this season, both of which rank in the top five in the RGV. He also has demonstrated his running capability, rushing for 260 yards and four touchdowns.
The junior gunslinger is just one of several underclassmen making a splash for the Bears. Sophomore wideouts Caleb Salas and Ryan Vallejo have emerged as two of his favorite targets this season.
Salas’ 908 receiving yards lead the Valley, with 11 of his 44 receptions going for touchdowns. Vallejo ranks No. 3 on the team with 36 catches for 520 yards and five scores.
“That sophomore class was district champions last year as freshmen,” PSJA High head coach Lupe Rodriguez said. “We definitely had a lot of skill kids in that class. They’ve gotten a lot of valuable experience this year. A lot of them are first-time varsity players. We’ve seen the maturity and growth throughout the season.”
The young duo’s growth has been aided by senior wideout Andrew Castillo’s experience, serving as one of just a handful of players with playoff experience.
Castillo ranks second on the team in receiving yardage with 634 yards and four touchdowns on 51 catches.
“I’ve told the guys the playoffs are a lot faster than JV or freshman ball,” Castillo said. “They have to grow up fast. We’re a team, and everybody has to step up so we can’t lean on just one guy or one side of the ball.”
Defensively, sophomore linebacker Cody Longoria has been a one-man wrecking crew, tallying a team-leading 113 total tackles (82 solo, 31 assist) and eight tackles for loss in nine appearances.
Ball-hawking defensive back Diego Santos adds another weapon on defense for the Bears, with the sophomore snagging four interceptions this year.
“We have guys like Jorge (Rios), who is a really good defensive end, and then guys like Diego (Santos), who comes up with picks,” Longoria said. “We try to come out and play hard and fast no matter the outcome. We’re trying to get our offense the ball back as fast as we can so they can score.”
Despite winning four of their past five contests, the Bears finished fourth in District 31-6A, with their 38-28 victory over Edinburg High erased due to a forfeit.
The forfeiture dropped the Bears to 4-6 on the year and 3-2 in district play, setting them up for a first-round matchup against Harlingen High (10-0, 5-0) at 7 p.m. Friday at Boggus Stadium in Harlingen.
While underdogs, the young Bears are ready for the challenge at hand, hoping to shock the Valley on Friday.
“We just have to keep calm and composed,” Lopez said. “It’s just another game. We’re playing a good team, but I think we’re a good team, too. We just have to execute every play. We have to play strong and fast and do what we need to do to win.”
The Bears aren’t the only team making its return to the postseason, with the La Joya High Coyotes punching their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
The Coyotes (2-8. 2-3) closed out the season with back-to-back wins against Edinburg Economedes (35-7) and Mission High (21-17) to secure the fourth seed in District 31-6A.
La Joya High draws a tough opponent during the opening round of the Class 6A DI playoffs, taking on No. 4 San Benito (9-1, 4-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bobby Morrow Stadium in San Benito.
Teams from Districts 31-6A and 32-6A met up nine times during the regular season. The season series between the two districts was lopsided, with teams from 32-6A winnings seven of the nine meetings.
They’ll look to continue that trend during the bi-district round of the Class 6A DI and DII playoffs, with teams from the two districts set to clash once again.
For full playoff pairings and info, visit RGVSports.com.