Panama upends US Under-18 Selects

If Team Panama were architects, they’d likely build houses in a measured, methodical, one-firm-brick-at-a-time pace. No rush, no hurry, just a confident and persistent application of rock and mortar to build a sound structure to behold.

The Panamanians gave a physical, sound and steady clinic of football Friday night earning an impressive 30-25 victory over the U.S. Under-18 Select Team at International Bowl X in AT&T Stadium. The U.S. scored three TDs in the final 5:40 to give Panama a scare, but it was too little, too late.

A stout defense and a two-headed Panamanian offensive monster that answers to the names “Roux (pronounced “Roo”) and “Borges” were too much for the Red White and Blue.

Panama’s 6-0, 185-pound 18-year-old quarterback Adrian Roux was prolific, keeping the Americans off-balance with accurate, high-percentage passing, deft ball fakes and a little magic on deep balls en route to a three-TD performance. Roux completed 22 of 33 passes for 193 yards and looked fully in command in the pistol formation.

Countering his 3 TD passes was an interception at the hands of U.S. linebacker Adrian Cabrera of Springstead (Fla.) High School. By contrast, Panama’s defense kept the U.S.’s three quarterbacks uncomfortable all night, limiting a rotating trio of passers to 13-of-31 for 196 yards with three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. With 6:22 left in the third quarter, the U.S. passing attack was a stuck-in-the-mud 4-for-15, all four completions belonging to left-handed signal caller Gunnar Gundy of Stillwater (Okla.) High School.

While Roux earned the game’s MVP award, perhaps the heart and soul of Team Panama – nicknamed the Sharks – was the 5-10, 185-pound Rafael Borges who ran through, around and over the U.S. defense for 141 hard-earned yards on 18 carries (7.8-yard avg.) and a touchdown. He also caught a pass for 10 yards.

The team’s nickname “Sharks” is an unofficial national symbol due to the abundance of them that swim in the waters on either side of the country, which is the world’s largest isthmus, separating the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

“This is great – this is a great feeling,” said an elated Fernando Franco, Panama’s head coach. Panama began practicing as a team for its International Bowl debut back in November. “We’ve been preparing for this and we really didn’t have many expectations – these guys were awesome.”

Earlier in the week, Franco said, “We want to play as equals against anybody.” His team wasn’t equal to the Americans – it was “more than,” implementing a mesmerizing mix of run and pass, comprised of mostly accurate, high-percentage passing and physical runs between the tackles.

Panama scored the first half’s only touchdowns within a span of 90 seconds. A calm and consistent 8-play, 64-yard drive consumed 4:07 of clock and resulted in a hard-nosed 4-yard TD run by Borges. The Sharks’ running back posted runs of 12, 6, 6 and 1 yard before quarterback Adrian Roux connected with receiver Brandon Belgrave for 9 yards and a first down on a critical 3rd and 9 from the U.S. 13 to set up Borges’ score.

Trailing 7-0, U.S. quarterback Dylan Liable of Frisco (Texas) Wakeland High School was intercepted by Panama defensive end David Henriquez when trying to throw a middle screen on 3rd and 7 from the U.S. 36-yard line. The 6-2, 244-pound Henriquez turned on the jets, returning the pick to the Americans’ 7. Two plays later, Roux found 5-9 receiver José García de Paredes alone in the end zone to take a 14-0 halftime advantage.

Building its momentum on the Americans, Panama mounted another time-chewing drive, marching 74 yards on eight plays on the third quarter’s opening drive, resulting in a 6-yard TD toss from Roux to García de Paredes for a 21-0 score.

The U.S. came up empty with another three-and-out, coming up short of a first down by a yard, forcing a punt from its own 34. Panama took over on the U.S. 45 after a brilliant 24-yard Belgrave punt return. Panama moved the ball to the U.S. 18 when it appeared the Americans had them stopped on a 15-yard sack by linebacker Adrian Cabrera. Cabrera’s sack pushed Panama back to the U.S. 33 to set up a 4th and 25. Roux turned lemons into lemonade seconds later by rolling out and throwing off-balance in the direction of receiver Andres Rodriguez who remarkably came down with the floating pass while being draped by Americans. The improbable catch gave Panama a 27-0 lead after Roux – who doubles as a placekicker – missed the extra point try, wide right.

The U.S. squad showed strength and a determined will on its ensuing drive to make the scoreboard read 27-7. Punctuated by a 17-yard run by Kale Anderson (Madison County [Ga.] H.S.), a 16-yard run by Julian Morin (Belmont [Calif.] Carlmont H.S.) and an 11-yard run by quarterback Mitchell Mahler of Kiel (Wis.) H.S., the Americans moved 74 yards in 9 plays. The drive resulted in a 4-yard TD bull rush by the 6-2, 215-pound Mahler, who bowled over Panama’s 5-9, 209-pound linebacker Jose Vidal at the goal line.

Following a Roux 20-yard field goal to make the score 30-7, the U.S. unleashed the hounds, scoring three touchdowns with the help of two recovered on-side kicks, to tighten the score at 30-25.

Gundy fired a 37-yard dart to running back Jashaun Foster of Sterling High School in Houston with 5:41 left, making the score 30-13. With 1:32 left to play, Gundy again struck gold, this time on 3rd and 1 from the Panama 15, finding Gabriel Walls (Frisco [Texas] Heritage H.S.) in the end zone to make the score 30-19 as Mahler’s two-point conversion rushing attempt was short of the goal.

Yet another successful on-side kick for the U.S. with 30 seconds remaining was followed by a trick play where receiver Matt Greenwald of Fairview (Colo.) High School caught a lateral and threw 37 yards to Anderson to cut Panama’s lead to 30-25. The U.S. again failed on a two-point try when Gundy’s pass fell incomplete.

The Americans’ final onside kick was recovered by Panama with 10 seconds left to play.