Natalia shakes off slow start to clinch playoff spot

Varsity Mustangs #4 Nate Banda, #20 Roberto Curiel, #15 Saul Vasquez, #88 Xavier Vasquez, and #44 Manel Garcia surround the Nixon-Smiley ball carrier.

The Natalia Mustangs were able to shake off a slow start in their final home game last Friday to defeat Nixon-Smiley in a battle of the Mustangs 28-6. For the first time in 18 games, Natalia was without the services of QB Wyatt Woodson and Center Jeremiah Gomez. Despite missing two keys to success on the offensive side of the football, Natalia made adjustments as Sophomore back-up QB Ryan Rizo and staff stepped up in a big way, leading Natalia in a huge 4th quarter surge where they scored three big touchdowns to seal their first playoff appearance since 2017 and just their fourth since 1989.
“I am really proud of our kids and coaches,” Coach Ilyan Martinez said. “We were coming off a tough loss to Poth, lost a few key players and also had an unforeseen school closure. Despite these issues, I felt like our team handled adversity like men and I could not be more proud of them.”
It was a sluggish first quarter of football where both defenses smothered the opposing offense for the most part which resulted in a scoreless opening quarter of action.
Nixon-Smiley was able to strike first, as RB Jesse Riojas was able to cap off a nice drive with a 5 yard touchdown run. The PAT was blocked by Natalia on an attempt by their all around stand-out Xavier Arias (played QB, linebacker, and kicked). This allowed the red and blue Mustangs to take a 6-0 lead with 2:45 to go in the opening quarter.
Natalia’s Ryan Rizo was able to lead his squad down the field thanks to a number of big plays. Natalia’s Rizo found Colton Richardson on back-to-back big passing plays. The first came on a 33 yard pass play before the big scoring strike which was from 25 yards out. Richardson was open across the middle of the field and he made a great grab and out-ran two defenders for a 25 yard touchdown with just 39 seconds to go in the first half. The PAT was good by Diego Hernandez, which allowed Natalia to take a 7-6 lead into the half.
The third quarter was much like the first in the fact both defenses bent but never broke. There were a number of big plays offensively and defensively, but neither team would find the end zone.
Natalia was able to score their second touchdown of the game in the 4th quarter with 10:07 to go in the game. After the Natalia defense forced Nixon to punt, Diego Zapata had a huge punt return from the Natalia used runs by Adrian Vasquez and QB Rizo to lead the Stangs 45 yards downfield before scoring on a 5 yard run by Vasquez. The PAT was good as Natalia led 14-6.
On the ensuing drive, the Natalia defense rose to the occasion and stopped Nixon-Smiley in their tracks forcing them to punt again. Natalia took over at their own 33 with 8:10 to go in the game. Natalia’s Jass and Rizo went to work behind the good work of their offensive line driving Natalia 67 yards down field for the biggest score of the game. With 4:12 to go, Rizo found Xavier Vasquez open and he raced in from 13 yards out. The PAT was good by Hernandez as the Stangs lead was now 21-6.
When Nixon-Smiley took over, Arias forced a pass for the red and blue Mustangs and the play maker Zapata came up huge for the Natalia defense! He intercepted the pass and gave Natalia the ball back. This is when Sophomore QB Rizo found his glowing moment of the contest to seal the deal in fashion. QB Rizo showed he had a little speed behind his talented arm, as he broke loose and raced 63 yards in for their final touchdown by Natalia. The PAT was up and good, as Natalia had officially clinched a playoff spot in 15-3A (Div. II) with a 28-6 victory!
“Watching Nixon over the last several weeks, we knew they were getting better and we would have to play four quarters to beat them and we were correct on that,” Coach Martinez said. “They came out and played us tough from start to finish and this was a good team for our program.”
Final #s
The Natalia Mustangs finished with 329 yards of offense compared to 210 by Nixon-Smiley. Natalia ran 55 plays compared to 42 by Nixon-Smiley and averaged 6.0 yards a play compared to 5.0 by Nixon. Natalia passed for 131 yards compared to 31 by Nixon. Natalia rushed for 216 yards compared to 179 by Nixon.
The key here was the fact both squads had two turnovers. Natalia had 18 1st downs compared to 11 by Nixon. Both teams struggled on 3rd downs, as Nixon was 1-8 and Natalia was 5-12.
Rizo was 6-14-113-2TDs-2INTs. Rizo also rushed 8-106-1TD as Adrian Vasquez rushed 21-80-1TD. Receiving, Richardson led Natalia with 2-57-1TD as Vasquez had 3-49-1TD.
Defensive Stat Leaders: Zapata 8 solo tackles, Navarro 5 solo tackles, Soto 5 solo tackles, Manuel Garcia 5 solo tackles, X. Vasquez 4 solo tackles.
Comments from Coach Martinez
What led to early offensive struggles?
“Offensively, we struggled with continuity,” Martinez said. “Our QB and Center touch the ball every play and make every call for our offense. We have been fortunate to have the same two guys in those roles for the past 18 games. Friday was not the case, as we started a sophomore at QB and we had a junior take his first varsity snaps at center. When you consider the dynamics of that situation, it is safe to say we went through some growing pains. It was new for everyone, so getting timing and adjusted to the change took our kids a little while, but I thought Coach Reynolds and his staff did a great job of being patient and managing the game.”
What led to late success?
“I thought our defense played well and really kept us in as our offense got adjusted,” Martinez said. “Our kids played disciplined defense and made some big plays for us throughout the night that helped us secure the victory. Nixon did a great job of bringing pressure, but once our offense settled in, we were able to take what they gave us. Our offense never panicked and just let the game come to us. We knew we would have some challenges, but overall we had a lot of kids step up when we needed them and it was a great team win.”
Playoff Bound Stangs
Natalia is Playoff Bound for the 11th time in school history. Other years include the late 1940s (1949 I believe), 1951, 1978, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1989, 2002, 2003 and 2017.
The playoff picture is crystal clear. Natalia will represent 15-3A (Div. II) as the 2nd place team as long as Stockdale does not beat Poth and the Stangs do not lose to Skidmore-Tynan. Both would have to happen to knock Natalia out of 2nd place.
If Natalia finishes second, they would battle the winner of a Hebbronville-Taft battle in the Bi-District Playoffs in two weeks.
This coming Friday, Natalia will travel to Skidmore-Tynan for their final non-district battle. The Bobcats upset Natalia in the 2017 Playoffs before rallying to defeat Natalia last year in Natalia in district play. See the preview story for more details.
Final Thoughts on win vs Nixon
“I thought our final game of the season was very special for our seniors and their parents,” Martinez said. Writer’s notes- At the end of the game, senior athletes lined up on one end of the football field as parents and family lined up on the opposite end of the field. As a special song began playing, they walked, met in the middle, shed a few tears and gave a few big hugs as Mustangs united for one final time at Mustang Stadium.
“When you get to this point in the season, it becomes very little about football and more about the process coming full circle for those seniors. Watching them grow into great young men is the best honor our program could ask for and winning is just a byproduct of having great young men. I am very fortunate and blessed to have seen all of these seniors grow up in our program and I am humbled by the culture that has been and continues to be built here. We have the best kids and parents in the state and I am grateful to be a part of it.”
By Eric Smith
Staff Writer