McALLEN — On the sweltering, sunny South Texas summer days leading up to the return of football season, three highly motivated running backs were hard at work preparing for a new year.

Each had his eyes set on a big breakout season, but all were driven by different factors. One wanted to help bring his school’s winning ways to the gridiron, another hoped to separate himself from the pack and the third wished to end his high school career on the highest of high notes.

Instead, Hidalgo’s Zach Carrera, La Joya Palmview’s Carlos Peña and McAllen Memorial’s Campbell Speights have met and surpassed some of their own lofty expectations while asserting themselves as the Valley’s three top bell-cow backs and three of the top ball carriers throughout every level of Texas high school football.

Carrera, Peña and Speights represent the top rushers throughout the Rio Grande Valley at the 4A, 5A and 6A levels, respectively. Each member of this talented trio should eclipse the 2,000-yard mark before the season is over and each hopes to help show their teams how to make a long run.

“I felt like this season was going to be whatever I put into it, so I made sure that I took every day in the weight room and on the field seriously and tried to execute the best I could at those things,” Speights said. “It really helped and I think it showed a lot this season all the work I’ve put in to have the season I have. But also, when you can have a team like you have and they can help you throughout the way push forward and push through things you don’t want to do, it helps a lot.”

Speights, a four-year varsity starter, entered the 2019 season as a bit more of a known commodity than his counterparts. He had rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in each of his first three seasons, displaying his next-level athleticism from the jump.

“I think (it’s) his vision and his feet,” McAllen Memorial head coach Bill Littleton said. “He’s got really quick feet. He can cut up in a hole on a dime. He’s just a great athlete.”

This season, however, Speights has kicked his play up to another level. The senior ran for 2,242 yards and 33 touchdowns on the ground while rushing for more than 100 yards in every contest and posting career bests in yards per carry (10.5) and yards per game (224.2).

His yardage and touchdown totals on the ground rank second in the 6A ranks and his yards per carry average tops every other back at the 6A level. To top it all off, Speights’ hard work has earned him a spot among the 25 semifinalists for the Mr. Texas High School Football Player of the Year Award.

“It’s wonderful,” he said. “With Landry (Gilpin, Mission Veterans quarterback) winning that award last year, that was just a crazy thing. But for me to be on the finalist list, that just means a lot to me. That shows how much work I’ve put in and it’s really humbling.”

Memorial’s rising star shined his brightest in his final home game, though, where he went off for a career-high 414 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

“I thought he played a really smart game. For the amount of yardage he had, he didn’t have that many touches,” Littleton said. “He busted some big ones and he has that capability, has great speed, great vision and just continues to get better every week.”

But for Speights himself, the gravity of the moment finally set in after the final whistle. He realized now there are no more opportunities to run it back next time.

“It never hit me until this last game, but every year after every playoff game that we’d lose, I’d pretty much just say, ‘You know what, I have another year,’” he said. “That’s how I’d get over it. But this is it; this is the last hurrah. I’m going to try to put everything into this game and make sure that we can get another.”

For Peña, however, the 2019 season has already been a remarkable success story for he and his teammates. La Joya Palmview clinched a spot in the playoffs and nearly captured a district championship late in the season as well.

The Lobos have thrived behind their high-powered offense, which has been propelled all season by a three-headed monster in the backfield that features Peña, AJ Chapa and Adrian Vasquez. All three topped 500 yards rushing on the season, making Palmview’s rushing attack virtually impossible to slow down.

“It helps a lot. It helps everybody just play their game,” La Joya Palmview head coach Margarito Requeñez said. “It relaxes and takes the pressure away from them, that they have to perform every single game.”

Peña separated himself from his backfield mates this season, though, by establishing himself as one of the best ball carriers in 5A. He ran for 1,973 yards and 22 touchdowns, in addition to kicking his own extra points.

“Those types of athletes only come once in a while. When you’re fortunate enough to have one and you can feature him, it’s great,” Requeñez said.

After a tough season-opening loss, Peña assumed a leadership role for the Lobos and ran wild helping them win seven of their last nine. He led the team in rushing in almost every game and topped the 100-yard plateau six times.

Requeñez hopes Peña’s field vision can keep Palmview running through the playoffs.

“He’s one of those few backs that you kind of want to contain him and you do take away what he wants to do and all of the sudden, he just cuts and goes the other direction,” he said. “He finds something because he has great field vision. That you can’t teach; that has to come naturally.”

The story of Carrera’s season, however, has been the most intriguing and it started before this year. In his first two seasons on varsity, Carrera and the Pirates won two out of 20 games before their coach challenged them in the offseason.

“Coach Stump told us that we had had enough of these losing seasons and it all started in the summer coming in every day,” Carrera said. “The grind didn’t stop at all. I’m thankful for Coach and my teammates for coming every single day and grinding to make our record look like this right now.”

Carrera has played a big role in the change that’s taken place at Hidalgo, after the team quadrupled its win total from last season.

“He’s gotten better every game. Sometimes I have to tell him to be quiet because he keeps begging me to get the football,” Hidalgo head coach Monty Stumbaugh said. “He’s learned how to follow his blockers and see where things open. He has really good vision and that’s something I believe that you either have or you don’t have.”

The junior actually got his first start at running back last year after an injury to the starter. Prior to that, he had played primarily as a defender.

“When they gave me the spot I showed out.” Carrera said. “I’m very shifty. I like to juke out some people. I’m not that big of a guy, but here and there I’ll make a big truck.”

Carrera rushed for at least 100 yards in every game this season, finishing the year with 21 touchdowns and 2,099 yards, which ranked No. 11 overall in the state and second at the 4A level, according to MaxPreps.com.

He was the true definition of a bell-cow back, as the Pirates called his number 280 times out of the backfield.

“He works hard. He’s one of the first ones here and one of the last ones to leave every day,” Stumbaugh said. “I didn’t know he carried it that much until I started looking at it. Certain things open and certain things don’t, but he’s gotten better and he’s been patient seeing where things open and letting things develop.”

Now entering the opening round of the playoffs, all three backs will be looking to make statements on behalf of their team and the Valley as a whole.

“You know being from where we are, we don’t get a lot of looks,” Speights said. If you look at some of the guys on that list, there are a lot of five stars and Texas commits and Power Five commits, but a guy from small McAllen, Texas, that some people don’t even know and would consider Mexico, it’s just a humbling feeling to know that I’m on that list.”

Carrera, Peña and Speights will each have the chance to embark on another long run with their teams this weekend and the opportunity to inspire others.

“It is what it is,” Speights said of Valley players being overlooked. “If you put yourself and your mind to it, then you can get anything done. I think I’m a testament to that.”

All three backs and their teams will travel for their bi-district playoff games. Speights and Memorial will face the Laredo United South Panthers at 7:30 tonight at the Bill Johnson Student Activity Center in Laredo.

Meanwhile, Peña and Palmview will go head-to-head against Victoria West at the same time at Memorial Stadium in Victoria, while Carrera and Hidalgo will clash with Boerne at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio.