HIDALGO — After his team fell by a score to bitter crosstown rival Valley View in a Week 1 loss, Hidalgo junior running back Zach Carrera knew he and his teammates needed to elevate their level of play.

The Pirates had failed to win a game in almost a year by that point and hadn’t possessed a record above .500 since Week 2 of the 2016 campaign, when many of their current players were still suiting up for middle school football games.

Carrera, however, set a new tone for Hidalgo and ignited its explosive offense during a Week 2 tilt against Lyford. In the Pirates’ first road game of the season, he exploded onto the scene and ran all over the Bulldogs’ defense for 391 yards and four touchdowns on the ground on 28 carries.

His game-changing performance out of the backfield marked the beginning of a new era in Hidalgo, as the team has gone to win six straight after Carrera’s career night in Lyford and positioned themselves squarely in the district title hunt.

“The kids are just believing; they’re playing hard and playing well,” Hidalgo head coach Monty Stumbaugh said. “If something bad happens, they’re responding which has been a big change from the last couple of years for them.” 

Carrera’s presence and production out of the backfield since that season opening win has allowed Hidalgo’s offense to blossom and expand its playcalling, which was a far cry from the Pirates’ football program he entered three years ago.

Carrera’s freshman year at Hidalgo coincided with the first full season with Stumbaugh at the helm of the program. Stumbaugh inherited a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2013, hadn’t finished a season with a winning record since 2012 and had cycled through four different coaches in the same stretch.

Current starting quarterback Angel Lopez was a sophomore when Stumbaugh took over as head coach and remembers how far behind the team lagged mentally and schematically.

“Basically everything is just trusting in the way (Stumbaugh) trains us, the way he runs his offense and his defense,” Lopez said. “When he first came, we were like really behind. We didn’t know the plays; we didn’t know the alignments. We didn’t know anything. Let’s say in our first scrimmage we would run like three plays that would work really good. Now it’s like our bread and butter, we just run it easily.”

The Pirates went a combined 2-18 through the program’s first two years under Stumbaugh’s direction, but that all began to change as youngsters like Lopez and Carrera who had grown up in their head coach’s took on leadership roles this offseason. According to Stumbaugh and Lopez, the biggest change has been regarding their mental approach to the game.

“Now they’re walking on the field believing they can win,” Stumbaugh said. “Instead of thinking maybe you can win, now they’re thinking they can and will win. That’s been a big difference for us.”

“It’s mentality,” Lopez said. “We can’t be mentally weak, we have to be mentally strong.”

Carrera might embody that newfound team mindset of mental and physical toughness better than many of his teammates and most of his competitors.

The junior back’s bruising running style has produced on and off field results for the Pirates, powering their rushing attack and instilling an added layer of confidence in each of his teammates.

Stumbaugh credits much of his offense’s growth to Carrera’s development in the backfield, praising his junior halfback for being able to transition from being an alternate back to the team’s workhorse and primary offensive weapon.

“Zach has got really good vision. He’s grown a lot. Last year he played a little bit as a sophomore and always wanted to bounce it and go wide,” he said. “Now, he’s starting to see and understand where we’re going and where the blocks are. He’s doing a great job of turning it up and getting positive yardage.”

Carrera’s play has improved by leaps and bounds in a short period of time, almost mirroring the meteoric rise of the Pirates’ program.

The junior back has run for 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns on 214 carries, making him one of the most dangerous backs in the Valley and one of the most relied upon, too, which has helped Hidalgo open up its offensive playbook.

“It’s helped us. Being able to run the ball can open up some things for you, just like you can pass the ball to open up things,” Stumbaugh said. “We don’t run that many plays, we just run a bunch of sets. The kids understand that and it has opened some stuff up for us.”

“We’ve been able to open up our playbook way more, especially since we’re more familiar with it. We’ve been doing it now for three years, so now we’re getting used to it,” senior defensive back and receiver Gustavo Sanchez said. “It was just getting used to it because at first we were used to a spread offense, which was put there before our freshman year. Then adjusting to a run offense was really tough at first.”

But those wrinkles seem to have been ironed out, as the Pirates have thrived this season behind a run-centric offense.

Carrera has rushed for 100 yards or more in all eight of Hidalgo’s games so far this season; he only ran for 218 total yards last season as a sophomore.

He’s currently averaging more than 200 yards per game on the ground, and his rushing yardage and touchdown totals place him second and third overall in Texas at the 4A DI level, respectively.

Carrera’s play this season has ranked among the very best in Texas high school football, which has helped the Pirates turn Hidalgo into a football town and their offense into one of 4A’s most fearsome.

“You’ve got to be able to score and get in the end zone and run north and south. He’s done a real good of that. Jose Gonzalez our fullback has done a great job blocking and doing some things like that,” Stumbaugh said. “Our quarterback runs tough inside too and our kids have the confidence they can get it. That’s the mentality they have to have because it can make a difference in a ballgame. It helps you keep drives going, take time off the clock and things like that.”

His outstanding play operating out of the backfield has the Pirates perfectly positioned to steal the district championship this season. Hidalgo has two games remaining on its district schedule with its season finale coming on the road against Kingsville King.

But first, the Pirates will have to go on the road and top La Feria, who will be looking to cap off an undefeated season, to capture first place in District 16-4A DI, a pair of goals which have been on the the Pirates’ radar ever since the preseason.

“I would say La Feria,” Lopez said of his team’s stiffest competition. “I’ve been saying it since the season ended last year: It’s either going to be us or them winning the district championship. They won it here at our house last year and we want to win it in their house this year.”

The key for Carrera, Stumbaugh and the Pirates will be queueing up the running game to put points on the board and keep the ball out of the hands of an explosive Lions’ offense.

“Our kids are excited. Through their hard work, commitment and dedication, they’ve put themselves in position to play for a championship,” Stumbaugh said. “I told them, ‘If you’ll buy we’ll have a chance to play for a championship.’ I said that because I believe that and they put themselves there and they’re excited for the opportunity.”

The Hidalgo Pirates will kick off against the La Feria Lions at 7:30 tonight at Lion Stadium in La Feria.