PHARR — Practicing during Thanksgiving week is something most Texas high school football teams hope for. It means they’re one of a handful of teams left standing in the state playoffs.

For PSJA North, it’s their third straight season practicing during Thanksgiving, and while the holiday is one to gather and feast with family and friends, it’s just another opportunity for the Raiders to buckle their chin straps and play the physical brand of football that’s led to them being ranked No. 7 in the state, according to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football’s Class 5A Division I rankings.

“We all have a common goal at the end of the day and it’s making it to state. Practicing during Thanksgiving is just one step towards our goal, so it’s a privilege to be out here,” senior left guard Adaen Sanchez said.

PSJA North’s Jaden Fuentes (24) carries the ball against Victoria East in a Region IV-5A DI area playoff game at Phil Danaher Stadium on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Corpus Christi. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

The Raiders find themselves in the exact same spot they were in a season ago — in the Region IV-5A DI semifinals with Brownsville Veterans standing on the opposite sideline. The Rio Grande Valley’s last two playoff teams will collide at 4 p.m. Friday at PSJA Stadium in Pharr with a spot in next week’s regional final on the line.

“You coach for these types of games and you play football to be in these types of games to where everybody’s looking at you, and these kids got what they wanted, so let’s see how they perform when they get that,” Raiders head coach Marcus Kaufmann said.

PSJA North’s goal of getting back to the regional final round of the playoffs is one win away, but in order to keep the dream alive and push the postseason even further, they’ll have to get through Brownsville Veterans.

PSJA North quarterback Alejandro Aparicio (3) fake handoffs the ball in a Region IV-5A DI bi-district playoff game against Donna High at PSJA Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

The District 16-5A DI champion Chargers (10-2) aren’t exactly a mirror image of the District 15-5A DI champion Raiders (12-0), but there’s plenty of similarities between the two. Brownsville Veterans likes to run the ball and play sound defense the same way PSJA North likes to pound the rock and stifle opposing offenses.

The Chargers displayed that ability in a 17-7 area round win over Corpus Christi Veterans last week, the team that eliminated PSJA North from the 2022 playoffs in the regional final round. Brownsville Veterans has won eight straight games, but the Raiders, winners of 12 straight, are up for the challenge.

PSJA North’s “Blackshirt Defense” has allowed just 902 rushing yards in 12 games this season and gives up just 134.2 total yards per game. The Raiders have recorded seven shutouts on the year, surrendering just 4.3 points per game.

PSJA North’s defender Mikey Gonzales, left, applies pressure on Los Fresnos quarterback Robert Pineda, right, during a non-district football game at PSJA Stadium Friday, September 01, 2023 in Pharr. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Some predicted PSJA North would be tested in the area round against Victoria East, but the Raiders had all the answers and passed with flying colors. PSJA North punished the Titans from the opening kickoff until the final buzzer for a 42-7 win on the road. The Raiders brought the intensity and Victoria East failed to match it. 

“Every day, we just talk about inflicting punishment, inflicting fear into the opponent. We want them to know we’re the ‘Blackshirts,’” PSJA North senior linebacker Michael Gonzales said.

Offensively, the Raiders have sliced through defenses like a hot knife through butter, averaging 496.8 total yards and 46.2 points per game. PSJA North was without Jason Montez against Victoria East, a senior fullback and key lead blocker, so the Raiders shifted left guard Adaen Sanchez into the backfield on multiple plays, inserted reserve lineman Derek Garcia in his place on the line, and let Sanchez pave the way for PSJA North’s rushing attack. The result was a 200-yard, four-touchdown game from sophomore running back Ethan Guerra with Sanchez blowing up several defenders in the process.

“My one mental note is just to smash,” Sanchez said. “Whoever is in front of me, they’re going to get blown off the ball because I know that’s what helps us move the ball as much as possible, and if I’m able to do my job, the backs will be able to do their jobs — so just smash, that’s the one mental note I always keep.”

PSJA North running back Jason Montez (26) carries the ball against La Joya Palmview in District 15-5A DI game at PJSA Stadium on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in Pharr. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Friday afternoon is setting up to be 48 minutes of smash mouth football between the Chargers and Raiders. Last year’s contest in Brownsville was a tight 15-7 game at the half that PSJA North went on to win 35-15. This time around, the Raiders have a chance to punch their ticket back to the regional final in front of their home fans in Pharr.

“We haven’t played a perfect ballgame all year, we haven’t even gotten close to that, so there’s a lot of improvement to be had. This week, Brownsville Vets is going to give us a ballgame,” Kaufmann said. “They’re a very, very good football team that’s improved all year long. They’re tough and the new coaching staff over there is very smart, they’re very cerebral, so it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a good ball game.”

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