The anatomy of every final play in a football game is distinct. Some final plays are cinematic, some anticlimactic, some inexplicable, many inevitable. Yet, no matter the context, one thing is for certain. All final plays are revelations. And the final play of Friday night’s defeat by the McAllen Memorial Mustangs revealed something inimitable about this year’s Mission Veterans High School football team. Every person connected to the Patriots program loves and believes in one another too much to accept failure.
Week one’s 42-30 victory against crosstown rival Mission High was an impressive showing for the Patriots. They gained over 400 yards of total offense, held dynamic Mission Quarterback Diego Salinas to under 200 yards passing, and outscored the Eagles 21-7 in the fourth quarter. The momentum and fervor from that win lingered into week two and created an electric pre-game atmosphere. A sea of blue and white roared for the Patriots as they swarmed the field and prepared for kickoff. The Patriots were down 14 before the excitement had a chance to settle. McAllen Memorial’s rushing attack shocked the Patriots, and the Mustang defense stifled the Patriots’ offense by forcing 2 punts, a turnover on downs, and a forced fumble before the start of the second. Before the deficit grew out of hand the Patriots offense responded with an Abel Lucio (senior) touchdown reception that cut the lead to 7 just before the quarter ended.
The second quarter began to mimic the shape of the first as the Mustangs controlled the clock with their ground game and re-established a two-score lead after Sebastian Aleman (senior) scored on a toss play from three yards out. Down 21-7, the Patriots just needed to make it to halftime.
Before the half, the Patriots special teams ignited their sideline by recovering a muffed punt that led to an eventual 28-yard touchdown catch by senior receiver Vincent Abrego and brought the Patriots within 7. On the ensuing kickoff, senior Gilberto Andasol recovered an onside kick that gave the Patriots possession at midfield with 2:35 remaining in the half and a chance to tie the game. As Braden Luedeker led the Patriots downfield, a touchdown felt like a certainty. And when he crossed the five-yard line the entire stadium was on the brink of pandemonium. Right when he cut inside to score, a Mustangs defender punched the ball out of his hands and directly into the unsuspecting arms of a nearby teammate. The crowd was silenced with disbelief.
When asked what corrections his team needed to make at halftime Head Coach David Gilpin was direct, “We gotta eliminate turnovers and we gotta get off the field defensively….We need to get off the field. If we get them in third and long, we need to get off the field. We need to put ’em in third and long. We can’t let them run down the field. Someone’s gotta play downhill and hit somebody in the mouth…”
His team heeded his message. After trading scores with the Mustangs to start the second half the Patriots found their rhythm late in the third quarter thanks to heroic performances from quarterback Braden Luedeker, linebacker Aiden Uribe, and wide receiver Obed Marin. The offense moved up the field with ease and the defense played inspired, securing stops against the Mustangs on three separate occasions. The Patriots stormed back in the final seven minutes of the 4th quarter and positioned themselves to take the lead with two minutes left after touchdowns from Marin and Luedeker helped even the score. With the game tied 35-35 the Patriots entered the red zone with just under two minutes remaining. Ten seconds later a whirlwind of gasps and screams flooded Tom Landry Hall of Fame stadium when the Patriots took the lead and scored the game-winning touchdown. But the thrill was short-lived.
A ruling on the field determined the catch was incomplete because it wasn’t completed through ground contact. The Patriots had to settle for a field goal. The team regrouped and lined up for a 25-yard kick to take the lead. Just as Isaiah Gaytan (senior) wound up to kick the ball a Mustang defender came off the edge and jumped in his line of sight causing the kick to fall short of the uprights. With less than a minute and with one timeout left the Mustangs drove 80 yards and lined up for their own potential game-winning field goal. The kick sailed through the uprights with 3 seconds left, effectively ending the Patriots’ comeback effort.
The Patriots meandered through the handshake line then knelt down at midfield to receive a message from their head coach while the Patriot faithful applauded their hard-fought effort. “At halftime, I felt like we were gonna come back and win it and we didn’t come back and win it. I’m disappointed in that, but I’m not disappointed in these kids or that coaching staff because they never stopped coming. I’m not happy, I’m not proud. But I’m ok. We’re gonna be just fine,” said Coach David Gilpin when asked to reflect on his team’s defeat.
After the Patriots exited the field, they circled underneath the bleachers and greeted their fans and families. Photos were taken, hugs were shared, and words of encouragement were plentiful. The moment served as a reminder of all the people it takes to support student-athletes and all the love it takes to build them up when they falter. Some players cried, some were stoic, some smiled, and some just gazed into the ether. McAllen Memorial’s last-second field goal sunk the Patriots’ hopes for an undefeated campaign, but the season is still young. “Everyone tried their best and I love my team,” said Patriots’ junior offensive lineman Julian Torres. The Patriots, who face off against Harlingen and San Benito in consecutive weeks, aren’t deterred. The faith they have in each other is unmistakable. “I expect my guys to answer the call. Tonight, was a test and we failed… but I believe we’re going to get it corrected and we’re going to bounce back,” said Patriots’ quarterback Braden Luedeker.