Senior quarterback Luigi Cristiano knows people doubted Brownsville St. Joseph’s chances at reaching the playoffs this season.

Since the Bloodhounds have lost their past three games, he said outsiders are probably once again counting them out.

But the Bloodhounds (3-5, 2-3 in TAPPS Division II District 3) are in control of their own destiny with two home games remaining on the schedule. If they win out, starting with today’s 5 p.m. matchup with Austin Hyde Park (0-8, 0-5) at Canales Field, the youthful Bloodhounds will make the playoffs, surpassing even the expectations they had for themselves.

“No one believed in us,” Cristiano said. “I wouldn’t even say I believed in us in spring football. … Everyone started to count us out after the last three weeks, but that wasn’t the real Bloodhounds. The real Bloodhounds are coming back (today).

“No one frames a state playoff shirt, but this would be one to frame if we make it this year,” he added. “These guys are all my friends that play soccer, other sports. They came to play for me, for the school. And for us to be good enough to make the playoffs in this district would be crazy.”

Cristiano’s top supporting cast members have been seniors Adrian Del Pozo and Nick Jackson, two-way players that coach Tino Villarreal called especially dangerous on offense. Junior Francisco De La Garza also plays both ways and has impressed Villarreal. Junior offensive and defensive lineman Miguel “Pumba” Cortez is playing well to lead both lines.

The recent struggles are a result of injuries, COVID-19 contact tracing and the tough, travel-heavy schedule SJA plays. But Villarreal said the Bloodhounds are the healthiest they’ve been in a while, and with Cristiano leading the way, they’re ready to get back in the win column.

“We’re in the driver’s seat. We don’t have to depend on anybody else, we’ll just depend on ourselves to finish strong. We couldn’t ask for a better scenario than that,” Villarreal said.

“Having Luigi as our quarterback is the ultimate thing. He’ll run what we tell him to, but he has an opinion about plays, and it’s an educated opinion,” Villarreal added. “He’s able to tell you from field vision what the defense is doing, what kind of plays would give us an advantage. His leadership, his mastery of our offensive system and his ability to be a coach on the field is impressive.”

Because of the roster’s inexperience, a lot has been placed on Cristiano’s shoulders this season. He’s attempting roughly 40 passes per game and averaging more than 250 passing yards each week. He has thrown 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions with 2,057 passing yards.

Following SJA’s Week 3 rout of Santa Rosa, when Cristiano threw for 375 yards and six touchdowns, he was recognized statewide as the private school Built Ford Tough Player of the Week. Winning the award was a career goal for Cristiano and puts him in elite company with former SJA quarterback and current Texas Longhorns player Kai Money as Bloodhounds honorees.

“I got to coach Kai Money for four years and see him be a Built Ford Tough player. We have his wooden Texas plaque in the trophy case, and to be able to put one for Luigi next to it, was great. Luigi had big shoes to fill following Kai, and he’s delivered,” Villarreal said.

Cristiano’s mission was never to be the next Kai Money. He wanted to write his own legacy and lead the team his own way, which he has done during the past four years. He’s determined to continue doing that during the last two weeks of the regular season to guide his Bloodhounds back to the postseason.

“Everyone tried telling me I had to yell and be that guy in the locker room,” Cristiano said. “But these guys are my friends. They’re not any less than me. Yeah, I’m the experienced one, I know what it takes to win, so I’ve been leading by example and putting the right words in everyone’s heads.

“The key to it was not thinking about who came before me. It was creating my own story,” he continued. “You can never replace Kai. But I did my best, and now I feel like no one can ever replace me.”

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