McALLEN — When Brownsville Hanna and McAllen Memorial met to kickoff the season in 2018, the two talented teams lit up the scoreboard recording 11 touchdowns between them at Sams Memorial Stadium.
This time around when the Mustangs and Eagles battle in McAllen, it will be a clash between two of the Valley’s top programs looking to put up big numbers again and jump start their season with a marquee victory.
Memorial enters the Week 1 bout tabbed as the No. 4 overall squad in the RGV Sports Preseason Top 10 Poll, holding the highest spot of any team from a deep District 30-6A. The Eagles, meanwhile, come in ranked sixth in the area and will be looking to defend a district championship and improve upon a season in which they advanced to the third round of the state playoffs.
“Our confidence is there,” McAllen Memorial senior quarterback Joseph Lara said. “I think we’re one of the best teams in the Valley right now. And as the season goes, we’ll show it.”
Lara and the Mustangs come into the season owning one of the most potent offensive attacks anywhere in the Valley.
Memorial — typically a run heavy team — will be led in the backfield by the preseason district offensive player of the year in running back Campbell speights, whose elusiveness, field vision and breakaway speed present a daunting challenge to any opposing defense trying to slow him down.
But this year, the Mustangs appear to have one of the Valley’s premier passing attacks captained by Lara behind center. Entering his second year as the lead signal caller in his team’s offense, Lara — who was 3-for-3 passing for 134 yards and two touchdowns last week in a scrimmage versus Harlingen South — feels more composed in the pocket and believes that will translate into big things for his offense.
“I’m not as nervous as late year; last year was nerve wracking,” he said. “It’ll play a big factor because they’ll think run and they’ll bring everybody down. We can just go over the top with it and they wouldn’t expect it. It would give us a good (dynamic) to our football team.”
Lara, who worked on his timing and chemistry with receivers all summer in 7-on-7 and preseason camp, thinks that could be a decisive advantage in Memorial’s favor this time around.
When these two teams last met, the Mustangs only attempted nine passes. But with a Hanna defense that returns one starter and no members of its starting secondary, it could leave them badly exposed to a revamped passing attack.
“I think they’ll probably try to start out trying to stack the box on us,” McAllen Memorial head coach Bill Littleton said. “If they stack the box, we’ll try to make them pay for it. If they play off, then we’ll make them pay for it with the run. We’re going to try to do what people give us and take advantage of it.”
The one returning defensive starter for the Eagles though is disruptive all-state defensive lineman Brandon Esteves. He should present matchup problems even against a talented Mustangs’ offensive line.
“They’ll be very aggressive on defense, playing up field trying to get in our face. We’ll have to stop a little bit of that penetration and do a good job with our blocks,” Littleton said. “The kids are going to have to do a good job of talking and communicating so we don’t turn anybody loose.”
Defensively, Memorial will look to hold Hanna in check with an experienced unit led by all-state honorable mention linebacker Michael Morales, impact pass rusher Sebastian Turk and hard-hitting defensive backs Diego Villarreal and Michael Pequeno.
The Eagles return three starters on the offensive front: quarterback Victor Campos and receivers Ernest Mendoza and Josiah Meyers. Campos played a big role in last season’s win for Hanna, throwing for 190 yards and two scores.
“It doesn’t really matter who’s out there,” Turk said. “The pass rush is such a big deal in the game. It’s something that we practice every day at practice and it’s a big component towards winning games. I think if we can get a good pass rush in this game, we’ll definitely have a better advantage.”
With two of the top teams in the area squaring off to begin the season, anything could prove to be the deciding factor. Littleton and the Mustangs figure it will boil down to a few things: the turnover battle, special teams play and a home field advantage.
“You’ve got to hope you have more good plays on special teams than they have,” Littleton said. “A bad punt here or there can put you in a hole and bad kickoff can put you seven points behind before you blink an eye. So many bad things could happen.”
“It’s incredible,” Turk said of starting the season at home. “Last year it was an away game and I remember not a lot of my family showed up and there weren’t a lot of fans either. This year to have a home game on a Friday night, there’s nothing more you could ask for.”