HIDALGO — When head coach Monty Stumbaugh first arrived in Hidalgo, he saw a town that didn’t embrace and promote its high school football team like some of the previous towns and schools he’s coached up.

The long-time coach has made stops in some of the biggest name high school football towns across the state. From Lubbock to Midland during the boom days of Friday Night Lights football, to Port Isabel and Cuero, a powerhouse with a full trophy case that defines prototypical small-town Texas football.

Now entering his 41st season along the sideline and third at Hidalgo, he’s looking to bring that winning mentality to his team and make the city a true football town.

“It’s changed tremendously. When we came we would hear them talking, ‘man, we’re playing Rio Hondo next, they’re going to kill us,’ that kind of attitude,” Stumbaugh said. “They won a few games, but when they lost, it didn’t bother them. It bothered me because I hate to lose. Last year, if we lost, the kids were crying and they were upset saying, ‘Coach, if we had done this, this and this.’ It’s meaning something to them.”

It’s been a dramatic turnaround for a program that hasn’t had stability, consistency or much on-field success in recent years.

Before Stumbaugh’s arrival in 2017, the Pirates had cycled through three football coaches in just four years. They had won just four games combined in the previous three seasons.

The first year under its newest head coach was a struggle, but Hidalgo matched its highest win total in years in 2018. Now with a full crop of varsity athletes who have come up in Stumbaugh’s offensive and defensive schemes, the team is ready to take a giant leap instead of a next step.

“As a group, we didn’t finish the season right last year. We went 2-8 and it wasn’t what we were planning on looking for,” senior quarterback Angel Lopez said. “But ever since that, we’ve been saying that we’re going to go 10-0 and that’s our mentality. Making it to the playoffs isn’t even a big deal; we want to be district champs. We’re going to win a district championship and we’re going to go far in the playoffs.”

Lopez leads an experienced group with big plans in 2019. Hidalgo returns 15 starters — eight on offense and seven defensively — to a group whose experience and change in mindset indicates that it’s ready to have its best season in years.

“It’s huge for us because they have a lot of experience. We only played about four or five seniors, maybe six tops. So we had a lot of young kids and that was their first experience with Friday night football,” Stumbaugh said. “That helped us a bunch. We got better as we went. We should’ve done better and it is what it is, but they’ve got a lot of experience and more confidence.”

Lopez was one of the district’s top quarterbacks last season, throwing for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’ll be bolstered offensively by speedy wide receiver Julio Zamorano on the outside, elusive half back Zachary Carrera and do-everything athlete Juan Gomez out wide or in the backfield.

In their new-look spread offense, Lopez and the Pirates have been adding wrinkles to their playbook. It’s something that Lopez credits to the team’s overall familiarity with Stumbaugh’s offensive system that they’ve all now come up in.

“When he first came, we were, like, really behind,” he said. “We didn’t know the plays; we didn’t know the alignments. We didn’t know anything. Let’s say in our first scrimmage we would run, like, three plays that would work really good. Now, it’s like our bread and butter. We just run it easily.”

Defensively, senior free safety and wide receiver Gustavo Sanchez leads one of the most experienced units in the district. He’s joined by virtually the same complete secondary as last season, as well as two of three returning linebackers, including Robert Toledano, who led the team with 115 tackles in 2018.

“It helps us know what the situation is and how we can perform in that situation,” Sanchez said. “We’ve been able to open up our playbook way more, especially since we’re more familiar with it. We’ve been doing it now for three years, so now we’re getting used to it.”

The team has tremendous size on its offensive and defensive line, full of players who play both ways. The position group is led by veteran linemen Eduardo Frias, Samy Zamorano and Raymundo Martinez, who will have to help a plethora of sophomores jell with the unit quickly to be effective.

The Pirates blasted La Joya Palmview in their first scrimmage, shutting out the Lobos defensively and running the score up with several touchdowns on the ground and through the air. It’s giving them the confidence that they can beat anyone on any given Friday.

“I’ve been saying it since the season ended last year: It’s either going to be us or La Feria winning the district championship,” Lopez said. “They won it here at our house last year and we want to win it in their house this year.”

“I think we’re going to surprise some people. You’ve got to win and get that taste of winning,” Stumbaugh said. “When we’re confident, we’ve got to keep winning to keep that confidence up and now they’re believing we can win and we’re going to win.”

Hidalgo will kick off its season at home with a rivalry game against Valley View at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 31.