WESLACO — The start of Texas high school football is less than three weeks away from kickoff, and after a shortened 2020 season, Rio Grande Valley programs are fired up to hit the field once again.

With players from Hidalgo and Starr County on hand at The Monitor’s Football Media Day at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco on Thursday, the rapidly approaching feel of Friday night lights began to kick in.

Weslaco High’s Justin Rodriguez and Marcus Saenz, who will start at quarterback and running back this season, said media day fired them up knowing the 2021 season is about to get rolling.

“It’s a great experience being out here with each other, making that connection for the season,” Rodriguez said.

“It feels good to get back in the groove and know football is just around the corner,” Saenz said.

For the past two seasons, Mercedes has been knocking on the District 16-5A DII title door. Mike Cisneros, the Tigers’ third-year starter at quarterback, said this group is determined to kick that door down.

“We’ve been preparing all summer and it feels good to be out here. We’re just ready to get out there and show what we got,” he said. “We’re super driven because these past two years we’ve lost in the district championship game, so I feel like this year we have the right team to win it all.”

Valley View was one of the six programs to opt out of the 2020 football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After sitting on the sidelines for a year, the Tigers will attempt to pick up where their strong 2018 and 2019 teams left off.

“We were itching to play. We wanted to play hardcore, but we just couldn’t because of COVID,” Valley View senior Jose Casillas said. “This year, we’re very excited and pumped up.”

Roma was limited to just three games last season, finishing 0-3. This year, however, the Gladiators return 13 starters with experience hoping to turn things around. The last time Roma was in the postseason was in 2015.

“All our games were close last year, and I feel like we grew closer together because of that, so I feel good about that and we’re excited,” Roma senior slot receiver Alex Perez said. “We just have to keep working, and if we put in the work we’ll see the results.”

The Edcouch-Elsa Yellow Jackets are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances and are ready to make it three straight after a full offseason, something that was taken away last year due to COVID-19.

“I feel like we’re prepared. Having this offseason, I feel a lot stronger, especially being able to lift this whole summer. Going into this season, I feel confident,” defensive end Frank Martinez said.

There are three first-year head coaches in District 16-5A DII — Will Littleton at PSJA Memorial, Craig Krell at Sharyland High and Eddie Galindo at Sharyland Pioneer.

“I know our kids. They’ve put a lot of work in. They’re all about changing the culture at PSJA Memorial, and the culture has been changed,” Littleton said. “We’re going to show up and we’re going to compete on an every-day and every-play basis. They’re pumped and ready to go play somebody else.”

“The changes have been very dramatic, and they’ve had a huge impact on us. It’s really changed a lot of the players’ mentalities, their willpower and drive to play the sport,” PSJA Memorial junior defensive end Justin Soto said.

Meanwhile, defending District 16-5A DII champion Pioneer will be tasked with replacing one of the nation’s hottest offenses from last season’s Region IV-5A Final team. The Diamondbacks have four returners back, two on each side of the ball. Star receiver Joseph Graham Jr., The Monitor’s 2020 All-Area Football Newcomer of the Year, will see plenty of opportunities, while Pioneer’s defense will lean on the intensity of inside linebacker Caleb Fuentes and defensive end Trevor Huddleston, who combined for 157 tackles in 2020.

Mission Veterans and Sharyland High both saw their double-digit playoff streaks come to an abrupt end in 2020 with play-in game losses during the final week of the regular season. Now, both the Patriots and Rattlers hope to restore the playoff tradition built over the last two decades.

“It was disappointing (to miss out on the playoffs) for us that have been here for a while, but I think that has pushed us to become better throughout the offseason,” Sharyland’s leading returning tackler Javier Treviño said.

“It’s exciting as the season gets closer, playing with the guys I grew up with. We’re ready to bounce back. I feel like we didn’t get to our full potential last year, so we’re ready to turn things around,” Patriots third-year starting quarterback Ricky Reyna said.

bramos@themonitor.com