Edinburg High's Left to right, Derrick Galindo, Yael Herrera, Ramon Vasquez, Roland Abridgo Jr., Alessandro Escobedo, and Noel Serna pose at The Monitor's Class 6A High School Football Media Day on Thursday, July 1, 2021, at PSJA Stadium in Pharr, Texas. (Joel Martinez | The Monitor/Pool)

PHARR — After a tumultuous and unpredictable 2020 season like no other, high school football is back in full force across the Rio Grande Valley.

As the 7-on-7 summer circuit winds down and summer strength and conditioning programs at schools across the RGV continue to ramp up, teams throughout the Valley are preparing for their first full season since the COVID-19 pandemic began while others are eagerly awaiting their first taste of football since 2019.

Many of those teams and dozens of the Rio Grande Valley’s shining stars on the gridiron gathered Thursday morning at PSJA Stadium in Pharr for The Monitor’s Class 6A High School Football Media Day where one common sentiment was shared all around: it’s good to be back.

“We didn’t have a season last year, so it feels good to be back and feel that atmosphere being back around our teammates,” La Joya High senior quarterback Tristen Treviño said. “We’re very excited. Our whole team has been working this whole summer.”

“It feels good getting together as a team, getting back in that rhythm and keeping it going from there,” PSJA High senior Viggo Lopez said, one of three returning receivers in the Bears’ high-flying offense. “We’re ready to reach, climb to the top and fight for that district championship. It’s really motivated all of us in the weight room.”

The chase for the RGV’s eight playoff berths in 6A — four from District 31-6A and four in 32-6A — figures to be a tight race to the finish line decided by a number of South Texas’ most established veterans and rising stars.

PSJA North senior running back Isaac Gonzalez, The Monitor’s 2020 All-Area Football Offensive Player of the Year, returns after leading the Valley in rushing with 1,266 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground while averaging 7.1 yards per carry and tallying six 100-yard games.

Gonzalez is one of 11 offensive starters back in Raiders’ black for his fourth season as the team’s primary ball carrier. He and his teammates are hungrier than ever after bowing out of the area round of the 6A DII playoffs last year due to COVID-19 contact tracing.

“This year we’re going to go harder and be way more successful than we were last year,” he said. “We don’t want to go to the first or second round; we want to go deep into the fourth and fifth rounds and play those big schools up north. We want to show them what the Valley can do.”

The Raiders are poised to challenge for the District 31-6A title this season but must get past reigning champs Edinburg Vela first.

The SaberCats were nothing short of dominant during a 2020 campaign when they rumbled to their fifth district championship in the last six years without trailing for a single second during the regular season.

Vela brings back 43 varsity lettermen — far and away the most throughout the Valley — in addition to 15 starters this season, but will look to senior quarterback Chase Campbell to deliver a breakout season in his first year as the team’s starter behind center.

“The confidence level is definitely going to be there for us,” Campbell said. “We have a great coaching staff led by Coach (John) Campbell to push us on and off the field. … We have the confidence that if we work hard, we can go out there and outperform the other team.”

Campbell isn’t the only 6A signal caller expected to take a big step forward this year.

Donna North senior Robert Gomez and La Joya’s Treviño are both set for big seasons after each experienced a significant setback last year.

Gomez emerged as a dynamic presence behind center and one of the Valley’s premier deep-ball throwers, racking up 765 yards and 12 touchdowns through the air before sustaining a season-ending leg injury midway through the season against Weslaco High.

Treviño, meanwhile, nearly won La Joya’s starting quarterback job as a sophomore in 2019 before missing last season when the Coyotes and crosstown rival La Joya Juarez-Lincoln elected to sit out the 2020 season amid health and safety concerns.

He’s since taken the reins of La Joya High’s offense during summer 7-on-7 play and should expand the capabilities of the Coyotes’ flexbone offense.

A trio of 31-6A teams are also adjusting to head coaching changes ahead of the new season: Edinburg Economedes, Edinburg High and Mission High.

Economedes tabbed former Vela offensive coordinator Sean Van De Merghal as its next head coach and he’s brought a palpable level of excitement to the Jags’ program.

Despite struggling during a shortened 2020 campaign, Econ returns 32 lettermen and 13 starters which should make it one of the RGV’s most experienced teams and very deep along the defensive and offensive lines.

“We’ve got to communicate well with each other and we try to hang out together as much as we can on and off the field. We try to be closer than brothers, like best friends,” Econ offensive lineman Preston Alvarado said. “It gives us a really big advantage, especially since we have a lot of seniors coming back with experience. It really helps the team out a lot and gets us really hyped up on the field.”

Edinburg High, meanwhile, brought in former Bobcat star and Weslaco East defensive coordinator Rene Guzman to lead a program that narrowly missed out on the playoffs last season.

The Bobcats return 30 players with varsity experience who say they’ve been working harder than ever before under their first-year head coach.

“He’s brought a lot of intensity. He expects a lot from this program because of our rich history,” Edinburg High senior quarterback Roland Abrego said. “For us, we just have to keep our foot on the gas pedal, keep working hard and bring it even more.”

Mission promoted former special teams coordinator Daniel Longoria as its newest head coach, as he takes over a squad that returns five starters from the RGV’s fiercest defense in 2020.

Linebackers Luis Balderas and Jude Jaime, defensive back Luis Briseño and defensive end Zeke Cuadros should have the Eagles squarely in the thick of 31-6A’s district title hunt.

Edinburg North will also bring back one of the Valley’s elite defenses in 2021.

The Cougars, who are fresh off a trip to the state 7-on-7 championships in June and their second straight playoff appearance, will have 36 varsity players back in the fold with defensive back Giovanni Gonzalez, linebacker Daniel Rodriguez and defensive lineman Trebor Acuña expected to set the tone.

“The chemistry is there and we feel great,” Gonzalez said. “Our younger guys aren’t so young anymore. They’ve been playing against us and guys up north. They have the experience to match up with and play against all these other teams.”

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