TOUCHET — It’s hard to imagine anybody overlooking Big Bird.
But Touchet coach Gary Dorman has an inkling it’s a scenario that just might be a secret weapon for his football team here Saturday when the Indians entertain Wellpinit in a 1 p.m. postseason clash.
Big Bird, in case you don’t follow Touchet football, is Vicente Flores, a 6-foot, 175-pound senior wide receiver/defensive back/kick return specialist who has been here and there and everywhere during his four-year Indians gridiron career.
His teammates dubbed him Big Bird during his freshman year when he showed up wearing garish yellow cleats and practice attire. And the nickname stuck, too, partly perhaps because of his long-legged, arm-swinging running style remindful of the Sesame Street character’s gangly movements.
Big Bird — er, Flores — originally got Dorman’s attention during his freshman year, Dorman’s first as head coach, by catching two touchdown passes and running for a third. But it was a mesmerizing kickoff return for a TD that really got the coach’s attention.
“He was a newcomer to us and a newcomer to football,” Dorman remembered. “And he was playing with a lot of older kids and didn’t get a lot of playing time.
“But we could see down the road where we were going to have the ability to feature him as a big part of the offense. He was a natural athlete, a great soccer player, and you can just tell when a kid has that extra quality about them.”
Despite a shin injury that forced him out of one game and kept him out of two others, Flores flashed some more of what Dorman was alluding to during his sophomore season. He caught five touchdown passes in 2010, returned another kickoff for a TD and brought back a pass interception for six points.
“Jake Hodnefield was our senior quarterback that year, and whenever Jake had the ball he was a threat to score,” Dorman said. “Vicente was our receiver, and he and Jake played off of one another. Vicente had a real knack of getting open and Jake found him. He became our deep threat.”
But it was during Flores’ junior season that he really burst upon the scene.
There were times during the 2011 season when it seemed as though Big Bird scored every time he touched the football. He ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns and returned one punt for a TD. Two of his pass interceptions resulted in Touchet scores. And he had six touchdown receptions and 16 more on runs from scrimmage.
Count ’em up. Twenty-seven touchdowns.
But another injury, this time to his hip, slowed Flores down late in the season and, ultimately, redirected his role and the Indians’ offensive philosophy all at the same time.
The Indians were running a spread offense at the time, sending one receiver, usually Flores, in motion across the formation on nearly every play. But even before Flores’ injury, the offense had lost its effectiveness.
“We had gotten to the point where we were way too one-dimensional,” Dorman said. “And when Vicente got hurt, it pushed us over the edge as far as making us look at different options.”
With Flores playing sparingly on defense, junior fullback Jose Martinez became the focal point of the offense in a first-round playoff game against Cusick. Running almost exclusively inside the ends, Martinez bulled for more than 100 yards as the Indians defeated the Panthers 28-20 and advanced to the state quarterfinals.
And even though Touchet was flattened by Almira-Coulee-Harline 52-8 the next weekend in Moses Lake, Dorman and his assistant coaches believed they were on to something. And by the time the Indians reconvened in August to begin preparations for the 2012 campaign, they had morphed into a more versatile and more physical football team.
Martinez, the fullback, has been an effective inside runner all season long with 11 touchdowns and 608 yards rushing on 93 carries. He also caught one pass for a TD.
Fellow senior Octavio Preciado leads all Indians rushers from his halfback position with 795 yards on 110 carries. He has also garnered 171 yards receiving, and he has scored 15 touchdowns combined via the run and the pass.
And junior quarterback Elias Martinez, the third member of Touchet’s Three Amigos backfield, has rushed for 731 yards and caught passes for 88 more while scoring 16 touchdowns. He has also completed 53 percent of his passing attempts for 782 yards and 16 scores.
“We have a lot of different ways to go this year and I love it,” Dorman said of his 8-1 Indians, who finished second in the Southeast 1B-8 League behind undefeated and No. 1-ranked Liberty Christian. “We don’t have any superstars, but we have a lot of different options. And it’s fun to see different kids shine in different games.”
Big Bird, evasive as ever and just as quick, remains one of them, even though Flores is often a used as a decoy and his 2012 numbers pale in comparison to his breakout season a year ago. He has scored 17 touchdowns so far as a senior: One kickoff return, two pass interception returns, four via the run and 10 as a receiver.
All of which makes Dorman wonder if teams, Wellpinit for starters, will script their defensive game plans differently than they would have a year ago.
“We were talking about that the other night in practice,” the coach said. “Vicente’s name hasn’t shown up big in the papers, hasn’t shown up in the stats column real big. Hopefully, we can take advantage of that by getting him the ball a little bit more.
“We’re even hoping somebody might kick the ball to him. That hasn’t happened much lately.”
But even if Flores is one of the weapons defenses try to take away from the Indians, Big Bird has discovered ways to contribute when Touchet doesn’t have the football. After being credited with 34 tackles as a sophomore and 58 as a junior, Flores has made 78 tackles and intercepted four passes this season from his position in the secondary. And that despite missing the first two games for personal reasons.
“He has become a real force for us on the field defensively,” Dorman said of Flores. “It was something we were a little concerned about because he is a pretty laid-back guy. But, boy, he has really picked it up.
“He has always been a great cover guy, but in 8-man football you have to be able to come up and make tackles. It’s not like soccer where all of the contact is above the waist.
“A lot of his improvement has to do with growing up and understanding that he is just as old and just as physical as anybody else on the field. There’s no reason to shy away.”
Not likely. Not anymore.