HARLINGEN — Two weeks into the 2021 season, the change in mindset and playing style brought on by a revamped coaching staff is already evident at Harlingen South.
The Hawks have eight new coaches on staff, including first-year coach Israel Gonzalez and all new coordinators. Gonzalez praised the team for quickly buying into the new philosophies, and they’re already reaping the rewards.
South is off to a 2-0 start and looking like a well-oiled machine from top to bottom. Senior linebacker Levi Ince said the Hawks are enjoying this strong start, and as a team leader, he’s making sure it’s not a “one-and-done” situation.
“Having this new coaching staff that’s rejuvenated us as a whole and given us this effort is showing us what it’s like to be on a winning team,” Ince said. “We have to keep going on for generation to generation, and it starts with getting our younger guys to really step up whenever its their time to shine. It’s been challenging to have to step up as years go on, but being in the role has been exciting and I’m humbled to be known as a leader on this team.”
Ince and senior athlete Jeremiah Rivera are both three-year starters for South. Rivera credits his teammates being coachable and putting in good work from Day 1 under the new regime for the faster-than-expected culture change.
“The coaching staff brings this energy every day, excitement every day, and it translates to us players and everybody just comes together as one,” Rivera said. “When the coaches first came, they told us it was going to be a process and we just bought into it. Everybody just buying in, the way they love the game of football, we play with a lot of heart and passion.”
Rivera is a Swiss Army knife for South, contributing at receiver, running back, safety and handling kick/punt return duties. He feels best on the offensive side of the ball. He leads the offense with 174 rushing yards, is second with 130 receiving yards and has scored four touchdowns. Rivera said the new offensive scheme has kept opposing defenses off-balance, helping the unit explode for 98 points through two games.
Senior Xander Casarez is the full-time quarterback after splitting time at the position last season. He is 23-for-37 with 387 passing yards and six total touchdowns this season. Casarez was quick to credit the offensive line for the early success.
“(Having one quarterback) shows the team that we have a real leader now, and they put trust into us that we’re going to get the win. I couldn’t give any more glory to God, and I want to thank the O-line for opening up the holes for our run game and for the protection I have,” Casarez said.
On Friday, the Hawks will travel to Alice to take on the Coyotes (0-2) in non-district action at 7:30 p.m. Casarez expects the game to be a shootout, and Gonzalez said it’s going to be a good test despite Alice’s misleading record.
“They’ve played two top-tier teams in their area, came up short, but watching film they are well-coached and they’ve got a whole bunch of speed and physicality,” Gonzalez said. “We’re hoping to go out there and stay healthy. But we also want to see if we can, again, play a complete game. Play against a competitive opponent and face a little adversity, and see how we respond to it.”
South’s defense held its first two opponents to 302 collective yards and has done particularly well against the pass, allowing only 89 yards. The Hawks have forced three turnovers and given up only nine points. Ince said facing Alice’s offense will help them see how they’ll fair in District 32-6A.
“They’re big, they’re physical, they’re fast. They’re going to be live comparisons to what we’re going to be facing in our district,” Ince said. “We’ve had a lot of speed and quickness getting off the ball. Every group from D-line, linebackers to defensive backs, we’ve all been flying around and playing as a unit.”
As good as all three phases have looked, Gonzalez has been most impressed with South’s mentality. The Hawks are confident and enjoying the process, which has resulted in them debuting this season at No. 7 in this week’s RGVSports.com poll. But they’re not worried about the “outside noise” and are keeping their focus on getting better every day.
“We try and keep our heads out of polls and points and spreads and that stuff,” Gonzalez said. “It goes back to building the culture. If you build a culture of showing up, rent’s due every day and you pay that rent with sweat equity, then you’re going to be all right. … I think our mentality has shifted. Once you believe you can run through a brick wall, it’s going to happen.”