As his players warmed up at the start of their first practice on Monday, Brownsville Hanna coach Mark Guess shouted, “We’ve been waiting for this day for a long time!”
The wait began in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and put sports on hold in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. Almost one month after other Class 6A programs across the state and two months later than originally expected, the East Valley District 32-6A football teams finally hit the field to kick off the 2020 season.
“We’re just so excited to be out here. We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity,” Guess said. “Athletics is great for helping these kids in a lot of ways. Just to be able to have this and to be able to help them reach their educational goals is awesome.
Guess said Hanna only invited “varsity candidates” to camp to try keeping numbers down to prevent any issues. His initial focus is on getting the players back in shape and “getting their brains reacclimated to the mental toughness of a football season.” The Golden Eagles open the season at San Benito on Oct. 23.
Hanna will rely on its experienced defense, which boasts nine returning lettermen, to be a strength this year. Defensive back Anthony Ambriz, defensive tackle Humberto Garcia and linebackers Jose Castelan and Ramon Reyes are returning starters Guess is expecting leadership and production out of. Guess said sophomore defensive end Manrique Cantu is “young, but he really developed” over the offseason and is a player to watch.
Hanna’s offensive line should be a reliable front, led by linemen German Woo and Santos Avalos. Receiver Ryan Trinidad, who Guess called a great athlete, will be a key contributor. Diego Escobar is moving into the quarterback position after receiving all-district honors on defense last year. Hanna will be young and a bit inexperienced on offense, but Guess isn’t worried about those players developing and performing well.
“It’s our first new quarterback in three years, so he’s got some big shoes to fill, but if there’s anybody on this team that can handle it, it’s Diego (Escobar),” Guess said. “He does a great job. He’s a good leader, he works his butt off and he’s a smart kid, a top 10 percent kid in his class. He’s going to put that into action and it’s going to help this offense. It’s just going to come down to how well our skill position kids come in, work and learn the offense.”
The Brownsville Rivera Raiders were also excited to hit the field Monday afternoon for a long-awaited first practice. Coach Beto Leal said the players were reaching out to coaches all day because they were ready to go, and they showed up earlier than they were asked to report.
“Everybody was very excited to come out here. Just, finally. We’re real happy about it,” Leal said. “Our school district really prepared us really good for this. (BISD athletic director) Gilbert Leal did a great job. It ran a lot smoother than I expected. But I did cheat though… 5A started before we did, so I went over to Porter and (Brownsville) Veterans Memorial and I stole ideas from them. I just want to make sure parents know we’re all on the same page and we’re doing everything we can to make sure the kids stay safe.”
Beto Leal said the lack of an offseason is an additional hurdle ahead of an already challenging season, but with eight starters returning on offense and a top-notch coaching staff, he feels good about the Raiders’ chances.
Leal said he expects the offense to be “very, very explosive this year,” led by quarterback Chito Perez and running back Ramiro Vega. The offensive line is also expected to be a strength and will be anchored by Juan Castillo, who Leal believes will be one of the best offensive linemen in the Valley. Defensively, the Rivera has a lot of holes to fill with just two starters returning from last year’s squad, but Leal said defensive coordinator Hugo Ramirez believes the Raiders will be ready to go.
The Raiders coaching staff is preaching accountability to the team as they prepare for the season, and Leal said the players are buying into the message and the results of that will be evident on the field.
“We’re telling everybody they have to be accountable, and not just here at practice,” Leal said. “We can use that word for a lot, like wearing masks and their grades and doing their jobs. I really feel that these kids have really rose to that. These kids have just been receptive to everything we’ve been telling them.”