RIO GRANDE CITY — For the 2019 Rio Grande City Rattlers, their journey started with belief.

Belief in themselves, belief in each other, and belief that the football program could transform into a winning program.

After 11 weeks, the Rattlers no longer have to wonder how that belief will translate on the field. Following a 33-22 win over Brownsville Pace on Thursday, Rio Grande City realized its goal of capturing the program’s first district championship in 34 years, ending a five-year playoff drought.

First-year head coach Leo Mireles led the Rattlers to a 9-1 record overall, 8-1 in district play, and has RGC buzzing about football once again.

“The whole community is coming together, it’s awesome,” Mireles said about winning the district title. “Thirty-four years, to wait that long for such a great community, for them to have this, I’m glad I’m a part of this to enjoy this. It’s been surreal to say the least.”

Mireles said he first felt this team had a chance to change things at RGC in May. He told his staff they had the potential to compete for a district title and were a playoff-caliber team.

“I truly believed it and I made sure that we all believed it and we all bought in,” he said. “The kids bought in, the community, and slowly it came to pass. There were a lot of miracles along the way. A lot of good things had to happen.”

One “miracle” occurred when La Joya Palmview knocked off Mission Veterans as time expired in Week 10, creating a path for the Rattlers to clinch a share of the District 16-5A DI title.

But the main thing that happened was the change in culture at Rio Grande City.

When Mireles took over the job in January, he didn’t just want to build a good football team. He wanted to build good leaders, he said, so he created a leadership committee.

He gave his players the responsibility of selecting 12 fellow teammates to the leadership committee.

“We knew that if we wanted to change the culture, we needed to get some leaders and create some leaders. In order to be selected as one of the guys on the leadership committee, your attendance has to be there, your grades have to be there, and you have to lead by example,” Mireles said.

The Rattlers selected earned patches on their jerseys with the letters “LC.” The committee then voted for four members to be team captains, earning a patch with just the letter “C.” That leadership from within the team created a bond between this year’s group of players.

The Rattlers have gotten contributed across the roster — from the consistent play of senior Mario Garza at quarterback, the steady running of Angel Galvan, the anchor on the offensive line in Zac Compean, and the lockdown defense from Marc Perez in the secondary and the duo of Devin Gonzalez and Anthony Ortiz on the D-line — all members of the leadership committee.

“You’ll see people talk about a coach-led team versus a player-led team, and that was one of the biggest things we wanted to instill in this program, that it has to be led by them,” Mireles said. “They take a little more ownership, and what can I say? Look at where we’re at right now. I think it’s visible how valuable it’s been for us.”

Now, the Rattlers’ focus shifts to the postseason. The Rattlers enter as the No. 2 seed in District 16-5A DI and will face Flour Bluff in the opening round, and they’ll get to do it in front of their home crowd.

“This is one of the things when we got together, we said we were going to experience the playoffs. We talked about playing late into November,” Mireles said. “This is something special. You get to play some teams from different parts of Texas that you’re not used to seeing. This is something neat and I’m glad that I’m able to show these kids what it’s about and enjoy the ride with them.”

The Rattlers’ bi-district matchup is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Joe R. Sanchez Stadium in Rio Grande City.

bramos@themonitor.com