McALLEN — McAllen Memorial hit the practice field in full pads for the first time in 2019 looking to continue to build after a season in which it finished a game out of first place in the district standings and included a trip to the playoffs.
But Memorial has higher aspirations and a decorated winning tradition that it strives to live up to. Under long-time head coach Bill Littleton, the Mustangs have reeled off 11 consecutive winning seasons — far and away the longest such streak in District 30-6A.
The last time a Littleton-coached team lost more games than it won, the players on its current roster were just beginning elementary schools. Its history is not lost on senior linebacker Michael Morales and his teammates, and their ambitious goals reflect that winning tradition.
“We definitely want to win out in the district and we don’t want to lose a district or non-district game this year. We want to definitely make it several rounds deep (in the playoffs),” Morales said. “We talk about tradition here a lot. Years prior, we’ve had such great teams for several years, so we just want to keep that going and we want to keep building on what’s already been set before us.”
“In my mind, I think we can go undefeated; I mean, that’s just what it is,” senior running back Campbell Speights said. “I don’t want to think anything less. I think if we come together and play like we can, then we’ll be undefeated.”
Morales and Speights, two long-time varsity athletes, lead an experience Memorial squad with the potential to make a lot of noise in 2019. The Mustangs return six offensive and seven defensive starters to two of the district’s most elite units.
“I’d definitely say so, because last year we returned, I think it was, two starters on defense and our first game was just a poor showing. I think it was just a lack of experience,” Morales said. “There’s definitely a lot more experience coming in and I feel like it’s a lot more confidence and that’s a big part of it, that we’re confident going in and that we’ve had guys who’ve been in this situation before. They know what they need to do and they’re going to get it done.”
The Mustangs’ prolific offense averaged more than 30 points a game last season against one of the toughest schedules throughout the Valley. By season’s end, they had played seven playoff teams in 11 games, highlighted by 40-point games against PSJA High, Mission High and PSJA North, as well as an overtime victory over Sharyland High.
Memorial is powered by its rushing attack, which averaged 261 yards per game in 2018. Speights, a four-year varsity starter, led the district in both rushing yards (1,832) and touchdowns (29) last season, and his senior year should deliver even higher numbers.
The Navy commit has tallied 4,973 rushing yards, 73 touchdowns, 28 100-yard games and a staggering 7.7 yards per carry over his high school career, which will take a lot of pressure off senior quarterback Joseph Lara and Memorial’s passing game.
“It helps us because when we run the ball, they may bring the defense down and we spread it out the next play and go over the top,” Lara said. “It helps us a lot when we can run the clock and turn to the ground and pound.”
Lara appeared in limited action last season, playing in parts of six games behind center and completing 25 of 47 passes for 407 yards. With a year of experience and an offseason of work under his belt, he’s feeling more relaxed running the offense and has been working hard on making the Mustangs a more vertical team.
“I feel more comfortable. I’m more confident on my throws and checks,” Lara said. “I think we’ll be a lot better than last year. I think we’ll spread it a little more. We have a good o-line and good receivers which helps us a lot.”
Defensively, Memorial will be captained by Morales in the middle. An honorable mention All-State pick, Morales racked up 71 tackles, six tackles four loss, four interceptions and a pair of sacks.
He’s a talented defender against both the run and the pass, which is something the Mustangs have been focusing on a lot this offseason.
“That’s probably where we struggled the most last year when we played teams like PSJA where it was just a pass-heavy offense that we hadn’t really seen before,” he said. “I think that’s something we’ve stressed a lot this offseason and that’s something we hope to improve on this season.”
Morales will be joined by a deep secondary, which includes playmaking defensive backs Diego Villarreal (43 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and a pick) and Michael Pequeno (44 tackles and 3 picks).
The Mustangs will find out just how talented they are in non-district play, which features matchups against three playoff teams from last year.
“Coach Littleton likes to play hard teams and in the past we’ve played San Benito, Weslaco East and now we have (Brownsville) Hanna, Sharyland and (Edinburg) Vela,” Speights said. “Those are always good teams, so he likes to start tough that way once we get to the regular season we’re prepared and ready for anything.”
Memorial kicks off its season against Brownsville Hanna at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 30 at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium.