HIDALGO — Football made its official return in the Rio Grande Valley on Friday night, as the Grulla Gators, Hidalgo Pirates and La Feria Lions became the first Valley high school football teams in Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties, respectively, to play competitive games since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Hidalgo, where a few hundred fans gathered in a socially-distanced Bill Pate Memorial Stadium to watch the Pirates host and top the Gators 32-0 in a District 16-4A DI game, many of the typical sights, smells and sounds surrounding the Friday night lights were either noticeably different or altogether absent.
Fans and players from Grulla and Hidalgo were directed toward two different entrances that led to opposite sides of the field, which were cut off from one another. Spectators and participants were asked COVID-related screening questions and were temperature scanned before being admitted into the stadium where hand sanitizer stations and a mandatory mask-wearing rule awaited them.
“The precautions can be kind of annoying here and there, but I understand that they’re for our safety and for the fans and everything,” Hidalgo senior quarterback Jacob Martinez said. “It’s something new, but we’re fine with it. We’ll figure it out.”
Spectators were seated in groups of four or less in what looked from afar like stripes ascending the bleachers with every other row sealed off to keep families separated by at least 6 feet. The press box and sideline were also subject to social distancing measures.
“The stadium was set up well. Our trainers did a fantastic job with our protocols, our mitigation. They’ve really worked hard,” said Hidalgo athletic coordinator and head football coach Monty Stumbaugh. “It was great to be able to coach the kids and get a little excited. … To have the opportunity, we’re very thankful.”
Gone were the smells and sounds of crackling popcorn, barbeque on the grill and bustling pre-game parking lot tailgates, as concession stands and tailgates were shut down as part of Hidalgo ISD’s health and safety measures.
There were no bands at the game, and the rally cries of spread out cheerleaders on either side of the stadium were at times faint.
At times there was an eerie silence where anyone in the stadium could hear both sides’ on-field adjustments, which was occasionally drowned out by a cacophony of coaches on the sideline and the boom of the scoreboard PA.
But what stood out more than the differences were the similarities to the brand of high school football the RGV has grown to know.
The Gators and Pirates, who each entered the game after starting practices Sept. 28 without scrimmaging, were well-conditioned and playing in mid-season form by the half.
There was palpable electricity in the air, as both teams were eager to make their returns to the football field after long layoffs and to make the most of their opportunities in a season where nothing is guaranteed.
“We’ll try to enjoy this,” Stumbaugh said after his team’s victory. “I was really pleased with the way they played and got after it. … On Monday, we’ll try to get ready to go to Kingsville to play the Brahmas and see what happens.”
The Pirates and Gators played the first varsity high school football game in Hidalgo County in 222 days Friday. If things go well, the Pirates will do it again when they host the Raymondville Bearkats on Oct. 23 after traveling to face Kingsville King.
While still a small sample size, the Gators, Pirates and Lions — who hosted Zapata on Friday night — gave the Rio Grande Valley a blueprint to what a safe return to the gridiron in the Valley in 2020 might look like.
All three teams were grateful for the opportunity after months of uncertainty not knowing whether or not they would get the chance.
“It’s just a blessing and the best opportunity,” Martinez said. “Stay safe and go Pirates.”