WESLACO — The Harlingen High Cardinals and Harlingen South Hawks locked up the Rio Grande Valley’s final two berths in the 7-on-7 high school football state championships Saturday, as District 32-6A squads dominated the Mid-Valley state qualifying tournament.
The Cardinals and Hawks tallied a combined 7-0-1 record to headline several noteworthy performances by 32-6A teams among a 16-team field at Bobby Lackey Stadium and Weslaco East High School early Saturday.
Harlingen High clinched its first appearance in the state 7-on-7 tournament — which is set for Thursday, Friday and Saturday in College Station — for the first time since 2012, while South punched its ticket to the state championships for the first time in program history.
“It feels great,” Harlingen High junior Izaiah Bell said. “I never expected for us to come out like this after the pandemic, but it’s awesome and we’re ready to go compete at state.”
“It feels really great. I’m really excited for my team and I couldn’t do it without them,” Harlingen South sophomore Xander Casares said. “Honestly, it’s still weird to be back out here, but we’re getting back into the rhythm of it.”
Bell and the Cardinals started the day off with fireworks in Pool A’s round-robin play.
Bell, the team’s starting running back, stepped in to play quarterback for a short-handed Harlingen squad and grew in confidence as the day progressed.
He helped the Cards muster enough offense to squeak by Laredo United in a 21-20 win and escape with a 13-6 victory over host Weslaco East 13-6, while tying PSJA High at 20 to advance to the state-qualifying round.
Harlingen faced Mission High — the winners of a hyper-competitive Pool B that also featured McAllen Memorial, Sharyland High and Sharyland Pioneer — in the first of two matchups with a state title berth on the line.
Bell chucked four touchdown passes against Mission, and the Cardinals recorded a trio of interceptions to down the Eagles 26-7 in their most lopsided victory of the tournament.
“I felt more and more comfortable as we went on and on completing passes and stuff,” Bell said. “We were definitely prepared for it. We just need to keep doing the same thing and dominate.”
Down the road at Bobby Lackey Stadium, meanwhile, Harlingen South showed its youth would not slow the team down.
A bevy of sophomores helped lead the Hawks to a 4-0 mark, becoming the only team to finish the Mid-Valley state qualifying tournament with a perfect record.
Casares and the Hawks flexed their muscles offensively early with a 25-6 win over Edcouch-Elsa and a 25-13 victory against McAllen Rowe to start the day before downing District 32-6A rival Weslaco High to take first place in Pool C.
They advanced to face Laredo Alexander, which rallied to beat San Benito in the waning moments of the final round-robin game in Pool D, in the state qualifying round.
That’s when South’s defense made its presence felt.
The Hawks tallied four interceptions, including a pick-six, during their final game to pick up a 29-26 win over the Bulldogs to secure their spot at the state tournament.
Casares said South has thrived in its return to 7-on-7 competition this summer, thanks in large part to first-year head coach Israel Gonzalez, formerly of Lyford, who has injected energy into the young program during the offseason.
“Today shows that we’re in it together. Even when something goes down, we’re all going to be there to help each other out no matter what,” Casares said. “The coaches have changed our mindset with everything we do now. We do everything at 100% and it just gives us that extra energy.”
The Cardinals and Hawks became the fifth and sixth Rio Grande Valley teams to book their spots at this year’s state 7-on-7 tournament, doubling the RGV’s number of representatives from the 2019 state championships.
They join the Edinburg North Cougars, Mercedes Tigers and Mission Veterans Patriots in the Division I bracket and the La Feria Lions, who will compete in the Division II bracket.
Together with San Benito and Weslaco, Harlingen High and South helped District 32-6A teams dominate a majority of the competition at the Mid-Valley state qualifying tournament.
The four squads sported a combined 11-2-1 record Saturday and lost only one game to non-district opponents.
The Cards and Hawks believe their showings made a significant statement about the strength of the Class 6A football in the Mid-Valley as the regular season approaches.
“It feels great,” Casares said. “This really shows what Harlingen is all about. It puts us on the map.”
“I feel like we’re going to do great things as a team next year,” Bell said. “We’re just going to keep building.”
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