HIDALGO — Hidalgo head coach Monty Stumbaugh patrolled the middle of the field at Bill Pate Stadium, guiding his team through practice for the most important week of its season to date.

Stumbaugh and the Pirates were meticulously preparing to host Port Isabel, a program with which he’s intimately familiar. He served as the head coach for the Tarpons for 16 years and resurrected their historic program, elevating them into a regional power at the 4A level for the better part of two decades.

Now, the long-time high school football coach is trying to do the same for the Pirates in his third season at the helm and sees a match against the program he only recently departed as both a nostalgic experience and a huge opportunity for his players to test their mettle against one of the area’s top teams year in and year out.

“Port Isabel has had a tradition there for years, starting back in the 1970s and 80s and continuing now. It’s a different culture, a different city and a different attitude,” Stumbaugh said. “We want to build a program here in Hidalgo. We want to build a successful, competitive program and to do that you’re going to have to be able to beat people like Port Isabel, Rio Hondo, La Feria and Raymondville, people like that. If we can go out and play these people tough it’s a measuring stick for us.” 

“Coming from there where they have a great tradition to a place that doesn’t have a great tradition in football, we’re just trying to build it into a very strong competitive football program where these kids believe they can play with anybody. If we’re able to do that, then we’ve done something really good here.”

His office is adorned with tangible reminders from what he and his kids accomplished at Port Isabel. Amid the sprawl of newspaper clippings, play sheets, rosters, schedules and hand-scribbled notes sits a glass figurine trophy with a translucent football resting atop it.

The inscription on its base reads “Congratulations Coach Stump on 100 wins at Port Isabel,” with the image of a large Hidalgo ‘H’ logo visible behind it emblazoned across the wall from floor to ceiling.

On the opposite wall lies a pair of large wooden and golden UIL trophies commemorating the Pirates past playoff appearances from another era that feels long ago. The placement of these objects is no mistake; it’s a constant reminder for the coach and his program that success lies in the future, not the past, and the hard work it takes to achieve.

“The difference is some of the places I was at were a little bit down, but they did have a tradition. They just had a couple of off-years, they weren’t down all the time. It was a little different there because they had the football knowledge and football background, whereas some of the kids didn’t have it here,” he said. “A big difference for us is when we came, they didn’t know a lot about the game and now we feel like they’re learning about it. This process has been a little longer … We started pretty much from scratch and now we’re trying to build a program that’s consistent. Now when you play us, you know you’re going to be in a ball game.”

The biggest thing Stumbaugh and his coaching staff have tried to instill in their players at Hidalgo is a belief that they can not only win, but hang in there against any group of 11 opposing players who line up across from them.

Stumbaugh considers himself to be a very hands-on coach, and that approach has required an incredible amount of attention to detail in all facets of the program. He, his fellow coaches and players could all be seen on the practice field wearing shirts that read ‘Beyond expectations,’ ‘It’s all about results,’ and ‘CHANGE: It’s up to you.’

It’s an intense commitment to pride and excellence that’s seeped into every aspect of the program.

“I’m always harping on the little things. In the weight room, I always want it a certain way and we put it up in a certain way. Everything is going to be done in a certain way. Every little thing in that dressing room, we have to take pride in it and we don’t leave it messy. If we go on a trip we’re going to clean up,” Stumbaugh said. “We’re going to take pride in what we do and you’ve got to. You’ve got to take care of the little things and I have a tendency to be a little intense, but I’m hoping that after this they can go on and take those things that they’ve learned from us here about how to be a better person.”

But nothing has been a better barometer of the team’s progression than its previous meetings with Stumbaugh’s last squad. The Pirates have played the Tarpons in each season since the coach made his transition, with results growing tighter and the matchup becoming less emotional and intimidating over time.

“The first year we played, it was tough for me to come out of this office, I’ll be honest,” Stumbaugh said. “I have a lot of fond memories there. I raised about three-fourths of that town. I always told them when I left that I would pull for them forever, unless I play them then I’m going to try to beat them. I’m sure some of those kids feel the same way.

“It was a very special time for me and my family. We had a lot of good friends there and still have a lot of good friends there. The kids would come up and visit me at track meets and things like that, and that was tough,” he added. “I love them to death. I was there for a long time, but I love these kids too. I’ll always back them unless I play them, but the kids here have given me everything that they have just like the kids at Port Isabel. I couldn’t be more proud of this bunch of kids.”

In their second matchup in 2018, the Pirates traveled to Port Isabel for the first time under Stumbaugh and he could tell his team was in trouble before the game got under way. He saw his players stare in awe at the board overlooking the Tarpons’ field celebrating all of the program’s district championships and playoff appearances.

“I knew before the game we were in trouble, I could tell by their reactions,” he said. “That’s just part of being a kid and learning what it took to get to all of those. That’s what we’re trying to do here; these are the things you’ve got to do if you want to build a successful program.”

Since that turning point moment, Stumbaugh has seen his kids go all-in and make the commitment to start the climb to the peak of the mountaintop. Their hard work and determination is beginning to pay off.

In Week 1, the Pirates played archrival Valley View — a team that made the 5A playoffs in 2018 — to a one-possession loss, a far cry from a lopsided 41-7 loss to the Tigers only a year ago. In Week 2, Hidalgo notched a come-from-behind 35-20 victory over Lyford, a team that it lost to last season.

Now sitting at 1-1 with the Tarpons on deck, the Pirates have their best opportunity to move above .500 in years and match the program’s win total in its first two years under Stumbaugh in the first month of the season.

But to hear the team’s coach say it, a win over Port Isabel would mean much, much more in terms of the bigger picture for Hidalgo.

“It’s about the kids. That’s what this game is about, not about me. If we’re fortunate enough to beat a great program like Port Isabel, it would do wonders. These kids would realize that they can play with people,” Stumbaugh said. “And it would mean a lot to this community by telling and showing them that we also play football here. It would be a huge for our kids and the community.”