PHARR — Just beyond the south end zone of PSJA Stadium is a wall honoring a pair of PSJA High football teams that reached back-to-back appearances in the 1962 and 1963 Class 3A state championship games.
No football team from the Rio Grande Valley has made it back since.
Following an October district win against McAllen Rowe on their home turf of PSJA Stadium last season, Raiders head coach Marcus Kaufmann spoke to his team.
He pointed at the wall and told the players that’s where they’re trying to get.
PSJA North ultimately fell short of its main goal of playing for a state championship in 2022, even though it won the sixth district title in program history, finished undefeated in the regular season for the third time and reached the Class 5A Region IV final — a place no Raiders team had been before.
After falling seven points and one more win shy of a state title game, PSJA North feels it has what it takes to break through the regional final, into the state semifinals and into the Class 5A Division I championship game in 2023.
“It gave us the visual that we have a shot to go pretty far,” senior left tackle Dante Garcia said. “We went to the fourth round and barely lost our last game. It was a sad loss, but we know what we did wrong and this year we’re not going to do that again. We have more than enough talent to get to state. … There’s a lot of eyes on us so we have to perform every game. We can’t let up. We’re ready. We’re ready.”
The Raiders return 21 of 22 starters from their regional finalist squad a season ago, the majority of them seniors who played varsity ball as freshmen.
“This senior class has been real fun to coach the last four years,” eighth-year head coach Marcus Kaufmann said. “They’ve been getting better, getting stronger, getting bigger and they’re buying into everything we do. They look a lot different than they looked four years ago. They’re big, strong kids, and their mental acumen for the game has grown since then. They already came in knowing what they were doing a little bit because they played so much football before they even got here. They’ve become really good football players. They’re a really good group of kids to work with.”
As freshmen during a shortened 2020 season, the Raiders finished as the No. 3 seed in District 31-6A and upset Brownsville Hanna in the bi-district round of the playoffs. PSJA North was then forced to forfeit its area-round playoff game scheduled against San Antonio Taft due to COVID-19.
A year later as sophomores in 2021, PSJA North went 10-3 and scored 56 points in its first- and second-round playoff wins over Harlingen South and Eagle Pass before falling against Austin Westlake in Round 3.
Last season, after moving down to Class 5A with the latest UIL realignment, PSJA North went 13-1 and won the District 15-5A DI championship before making a run into the regional final round of the playoffs, losing 20-14 against Corpus Christi Veterans.
Each year, PSJA North has leveled up. With one year left, the Raiders’ seniors are ready to make a run at state.
“It’s an opportunity. It’s our last year,” senior defensive back Leroy Palacios said. “Half of our team is seniors, so it’s going to be a good year. Last year we went four rounds, the year before we went three. We have the experience to go deep into the playoffs, now we got to take it further.”
PSJA North became the third Rio Grande Valley football team to reach a regional final in the past five years, joining Mission Veterans in 2018 and Sharyland Pioneer in 2020. A fourth-round playoff win by the Raiders would have made them the area’s first team to reach the state semifinals since Port Isabel in 2003. Donna High’s 1961 team remains the only RGV team to win a state championship.
For the Raiders, defending last year’s 15-5A DI championship would be nice, but they have their sights set higher. They’re hoping the 10-game regular season and a district matchup against fellow 15-5A DI power Edinburg Vela prepares them for a lengthy postseason run into December.
“We’re talking about Corpus Christi Miller, Corpus Christi Veterans, Smithson Valley, College Station,” Kaufmann said. “We’re working these games to be prepared for those games if we’re lucky enough to get there, because you got to get the right path to get there. That’s what we talk about to try to make sure we stay focused and stay humble.”
This team knows what it takes to stay focused. The players have been doing so since their pee wee football days.
Several started playing organized football together on the Mission Mustangs, a local Texas Youth Football Association team, and won a TYFA Junior State Championship in 2018.
Now, a large portion of that group finds itself pursuing a UIL Class 5A Division I state championship with PSJA North.
“I remember being a little kid watching the Raiders and couldn’t wait to be a part of this team and play for this community,” senior center Joe Derek Vecchio said. “We’ve all been playing together since we were little, so it’s great to be able to play alongside these guys and see us all come together and play as one.”
“I feel like everything’s been lining up for us to have a great season this year. We just have to play every game like it’s our last,” senior linebacker Michael Gonzales said.
The PSJA North Raiders closed last season as the RGVSports.com’s top-ranked team in the Rio Grande Valley and open the 2023 campaign right back at the top.
The Raiders received all four first-place votes from AIM Media’s sports staff at three local newspapers — The Brownsville Herald, The Monitor and Valley Morning Star.
After a perfect 10-0 run through the regular season and the program’s first trip to the regional final round of the playoffs, the Raiders return 21 of 22 starters ready for another crack at it.
“It’s really hard to get to the top but it’s even harder to stay there. We’re really going to see what we’re made of this season, but I believe in each and every one of my teammates that we’re going to get it done,” PSJA North senior center Joe Derek Vecchio said.
The Raiders’ offense relies on its dominant, towering offensive line to do the dirty work, from left to right: Dante Garcia, Adaen Sanchez, Vecchio, Agustin Renterria and Jordan Brewster.
They’ll make room for a rushing attack featuring a three-headed monster in senior fullback Jason Montes (1,711 rushing yards, 13 rushing TDs), senior running back Jaden Fuentes (735 rushing yards, nine TDs) and freshman Ethan Guerra (1,105 rushing yards, 13 TDs). All three have shown they can catch the ball out of the backfield, too.
To start the year at quarterback will be Julius Arredondo as senior starter Alejandro Aparicio is sidelined with an injury. The senior Arredondo, who normally starts at tight end, already has proven plenty capable of handling starting quarterback duties, however, as he filled in for Aparicio while injured during the 2021 season. He kept the Raiders on track then and looks to do so again this season until Aparicio returns. Aparicio threw for 1,715 yards and 21 touchdowns and ran for 957 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. Arredondo was his top target with 24 receptions for 518 yards and nine touchdowns.
PSJA North also brings back a deep receiving corps with Andre Matamoros (21 catches, 337 yards, three TDs), Markus Rendon (23 catches, 268 yards, two TDs) and Isaac Willingham (20 catches, 280 yards, two TDs) on the outside.
The Raiders’ vaunted “Blackshirt Defense” is stacked with playmakers at all three levels starting with the defensive line. Defensive end Danny Garcia, defensive tackle Salvador Sanchez and end Marcus Hernandez combined for 54 tackles for loss, 43 quarterback hurries and 16 sacks last season.
Linebackers Steven Garza (163 tackles), Michael Gonzales (158 tackles) and Jesse Montes (126 tackles) fly to the ball and make plays both in coverage and the running game. In the secondary is a group featuring senior ballhawk Leroy Palacios (four INTs) and Ethan Montemayor, who came on strong at the end of the 2022 season.
“The expectation for the ‘Blackshirt Defense’ is always through the roof, but I feel like this year, it’s way higher than it ever has been because of the amount of returners we have, the amount of skills we bring to the table and the amount of firepower we have,” Gonzales said.
PSJA North has all the tools to repeat as District 15-5A DI champion and put together a deep playoff run. Their ultimate goal, however, remains winning the region and breaking through to the state championship game.
“Last year, we went four rounds deep; the year before we went three,” Palacios said. “We have the experience to go deep into the playoffs, now we got to take it further.”
The Raiders kick off the regular season with the annual Tri-City Classic rivalry game against PSJA High at 7:30 p.m. Friday at PSJA Stadium in Pharr. Their non-district schedule includes home games against Los Fresnos and Laredo United South.
PSJA North opens district play against arguably its two toughest tests in McAllen High on Sept. 14 at home and a road game against perennial power Edinburg Vela on Sept. 22 in Edinburg.