McALLEN — Hidalgo’s Rey Cantu was unsure what his senior season would look like. He entered the 2023 campaign still recovering from an ACL injury, which required surgery and months of rehab.

On top of the physical challenges, the senior forward had to battle with himself mentally as well, fearing another injury would happen when he returned to the pitch.

“I was really scared returning to the field,” Cantu said. “Even after eight months, I felt like I was going to hurt myself again or break something. Luckily, with the help of my therapist, Paul Trevino, and Coach (Zeke) Morales and his assistants, I was able to gain my confidence back and come back like I had left.”

Nothing could slow Cantu during his senior season, however, as he overcame all obstacles in his way en route to a dominant 2023 campaign.

The Pirates’ senior captain netted a Valley-leading 40 goals in 13 district games before adding another eight during the Pirates’ run to the Class 4A state title.

Cantu is The Monitor’s 2023 All-Arena Boys Soccer Boys Soccer Player of the Year.

“It feels good to win this award after not being able to win it my previous years,” Cantu said. “I’ve worked really hard after my injury to be 100% for my teammates and be able to win state. After the work is done, that’s when the awards and recognition comes. This year, I was able to be named player of the year.”

Cantu played the 2023 season with a state-or-bust mentality, looking to bring a state title to Hidalgo for the first time since 2009.

His mentality translated into one of the state’s most dominant offensive attacks, with the Pirates averaging 7.2 goals per contest during district play behind Cantu’s 3.1 goals per game.

“For me it is always about a goal,” Cantu said. “I told my team we can’t go scared into any game. We wanted teams like Boerne to see how many goals we scored and be scared of us. I told my team we had to have that mentality to show Hidalgo wasn’t just any team.”

The Pirates’ juggernaut offense continued to roll in the postseason behind Cantu, outscoring the team’s first three playoff opponents 18-4 to advance to the Region IV-4A tournament.

Cantu saved some of his best performances for the Pirates’ final four games. During Hidalgo’s Region IV-4A semifinal against Austin Achieve, he netted the go-ahead goal during the final seconds to set up a matchup against then-reigning Class 4A state champion Boerne.

Against the Greyhounds, Cantu scored one of two goals by the Pirates, helping Hidalgo overcome Boerne and advance to the state tournament.

Cantu stole the show during the biggest stage of his career, adding another game-winner during Hidalgo’s state semifinal against San Elizario.

He followed it up with a two-goal performance against Palestine in the Class 4A state title game, leading the Pirates to a 3-0 victory and earning him the game’s MVP award.

Cantu’s senior season led to accolades and rewards rolling in for the Pirates’ superstar. Cantu was named to the District 30-4A first team for a second straight year, while also being named boys soccer player of the year during the All-Valley Sports Award Banquet.

He’ll get a chance to continue his career at the next level as well, signing to play at Blinn College next fall.

“My mentality was that this was my last year,” Cantu said. “I always told my teammates if we don’t win state, we’d leave Hidalgo with a sour taste in our mouths and wonder ‘What if?’ I had to give it my all because this was my last year. I wanted to leave here as a state champion. Thanks to God, we made it happen and we’re here now.”

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