LYFORD — Packed stands are expected today at Bulldog Stadium for the return of the Willacy County Cotton Bowl between Lyford and Raymondville.

The game wasn’t played in 2020 due to COVID-19, meaning several players on both teams will be experiencing the matchup at the varsity level for the first time. But the lore of the rivalry is not lost on the newcomers, and they’re eager to be a part of it.

“This is something we look forward to. It’s the Cotton Bowl,” junior offensive/defensive lineman Carlos Martinez said. “I’m excited to see packed stands. My freshman year I saw them play, and I want to experience that. We’ve always had stacked teams, both of us. I feel we have more talent than they do, we’ve put in more work, and we’re ready for this.”

Said Raymondville junior linebacker Hunter Posas, “It’s just exciting, after this horrible pandemic, coming back to play our rivalry. … I’ve been working my tail off all summer for this time, this game actually.”

The Lyford Bulldogs (2-0) are confident they’ll be capturing their first victory in the series since 2016. Though the Bearkats have dominated the matchup during the past 10 years, winning six of the eight meetings (no game in 2015), Lyford believes its explosive offense will be the difference-maker this go ’round.

The Bulldogs are averaging 42.5 points and 618 yards of offense per game. Junior quarterback Osmar Martinez has a slew of speedy receivers to throw to, led by top target senior Justin Vela, and moves the ball well with his legs.

Senior athlete Mark Marroquin (71 rush yards, TD; eight tackles) thinks “all the hard work” Lyford has put in will lead to his first Cotton Bowl victory.

“The offense, everything’s been working out. I think our speed does really well on all the plays to help us score,” Marroquin said. “I don’t think history’s going to repeat. It’s going to be the best feeling because we’ve been losing for, like, five years, but I think we’re going to win this one. It’s going to be a good game. I feel like it’s going to be a shootout, but I think we’re going to stop them and come out on top.”

Lyford junior offensive/defensive lineman Carlos Martinez, left, and senior athlete Mark Marroquin are ready to help the Bulldogs chase their first victory in the Cotton Bowl rivalry game against Raymondville since 2016. The game will be played today at 7:30 p.m. in Lyford. By Claire Cruz,

Raymondville (1-1) is young and has had trouble with slow starts, but coach Frank Cantu has appreciated the “fighting heart” his team shows. Last week, a late goal-line stand helped put the Bearkats in the win column. They’ll need another solid defensive effort to slow down Lyford, which hasn’t scored in this series since 2017.

“We’ve been practicing hard this whole week, and they’re honestly nothing special. We should be good. All we got to do is execute on our secondary level. I doubt they’ll be able to run the ball on us because our run game is very strong,” Posas said. He leads the team with 30 tackles.

Senior Jayson Cantu is in his third season as Raymondville’s QB1 and feels he’ll be getting one final victory over the Bulldogs. He has thrown five touchdown passes and 454 yards with a high completion percentage. Junior Diego Gutierrez and senior Jayden Garza have been key parts of the offense.

Jayson Cantu, one of the few Bearkats experienced in this game, is telling his teammates to “stay calm and collected” and not get caught up in the revelry. He believes Raymondville is “bigger up front” and can battle Lyford’s defense.

“The energy’s way up, more than the other games just because it’s our rival. The stands get a little more hyped. It helps us out on the field to go a little harder,” Cantu said. “But it’s just another game for us, we have bigger opponents coming up in district, so stick to our game plan and we’ll be all right. We’re not worried, I’ll tell you that.”

This will be Lyford coach Jerry Jauregui’s first Cotton Bowl as a head coach. His No. 9 Bulldogs are arguably the favorite, but he doesn’t want them thinking about that. Jauregui wants Lyford’s focus to be on showing fight and finishing a game strong.

“We know the history behind this game. But we tell the kids it’s just the next game on the schedule,” Jauregui said. “All the outside noise, we just block it out and get ready for this game. We’ve had good preparation, good practices, kids are locked in. We have a very good offense, very explosive. Execution, no penalties, that’s what we’re emphasizing this week, and hopefully if the ball rolls in our favor we’ll get the victory.”

Frank Cantu called Lyford’s speed “very impressive” and thinks its offense could pose a problem. If Raymondville can contain the Bulldogs on defense and put together long scoring drives offensively, Cantu believes the Bearkats can continue their winning ways.

“It’s just a pride thing, trying to get this win, and then move on. It just makes the whole season go a little bit better,” Cantu said. “We know we have our hands full, but what a great challenge to come up against a team like this and see where we stack up against somebody with that much firepower. Let’s cut the mistakes down and execute our game. If we can do that, we feel we have a chance.”

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