McALLEN — Under normal circumstances, McAllen Memorial and Harlingen High would have no business meeting one another on a football field in 2020.

Memorial is one of many Rio Grande Valley schools making the transition from Class 6A to District 16-5A DI for football after the latest round of UIL realignment, while Harlingen is considered to be an early-season frontrunner in District 32-6A. 

Given the unique parameters of playing a high school football season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and an already shortened and delayed regular season, on paper, it seemed unlikely that the Class 6A Cardinals could meet the Class 5A Mustangs on the gridiron. 

However, that’s exactly what happened Friday night, as Harlingen High triumphed over McAllen Memorial 21-6 at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium in an exceedingly unlikely matchup that underscores the uncertainty and the need for flexibility in one of the most unpredictable high school football seasons in Valley history.

“I think both teams had to wing it when it came to what to expect,” McAllen Memorial head coach Bill Littleton said. “But the main thing was the kids got an opportunity to play the game they love.”

As recently as two weeks ago, the Cardinals and Mustangs were preparing to kick their respective seasons off against a different set of foes.

McAllen Memorial was scheduled to open up its regular season campaign with a road contest against the Sharyland Pioneer Diamondbacks at 7 p.m. Thursday, while Harlingen High was set to visit the Weslaco High Panthers to start their season at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

But on Oct. 16, Weslaco ISD announced that due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests within the Panthers’ football program, the entire team and coaching staff would self-quarantine at home for two weeks and Weslaco High canceled its first two games: the Cardinal’s original season opener Friday and a home game against the Donna North Chiefs that was slated for Oct. 30.

“We are staying positive and we will continue to make sure our team’s health is our top priority,” Weslaco High head coach Roy Stroman said.

Harlingen found itself suddenly without a dance partner on the opening weekend for high school football teams across the RGV and in the midst of again reshuffling its schedule.

Then Thursday rolled around and chaos struck again, this time right before kickoff in Mission.

The non-district season-opener between McAllen Memorial and Sharyland Pioneer was canceled less than an hour before kickoff at Richard Thompson Stadium on the campus of Sharyland High.

The highly-anticipated game between the Diamondbacks and Mustangs was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns before either teams’ players arrived at the stadium. Athletic trainers and stadium personnel from both sidelines said the game was called off after the COVID mitigation and health and safety requirements for the game to occur.

Those requirements weren’t the same for each side, which led to the game being canceled without citing specifics and also highlights how in this era of uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic that school districts across America, Texas and the RGV are all taking different approaches in trying to best manage and prevent the spread of the virus that often do not align with one another in sometimes key areas.

“It was a rollercoaster week Thursday afternoon after the Pioneer game got called off and then scheduling Harlingen within an hour of our Thursday game being called off while we were warming up,” Littleton said. “Our team went from a high to an all-time low to a high again after picking up the Harlingen game … with less than 24 hours to get ready for them.”

That led Memorial’s Littleton to hop on the phone late Thursday afternoon, as games across the RGV were approaching kickoff time.

He connected with Harlingen High head coach Manny Gomez and proposed a unique solution born out of circumstance: the Mustangs would host the Cardinals at McAllen Veterans Memorial on Friday night.

“I was ecstatic when Coach [Bill] Littleton called the other day, actually last night around six-ish and we made this happen,” Gomez said. “Any time you can come out here and see kids play and perform and have fun it’s a win-win.”

The plan worked because the McHi Bulldogs played the Mercedes Tigers on a Thursday night, and the McAllen Rowe Warriors played at Sharyland High against the Rattlers, due in large part to the effective implementation of COVID-19 protocols at Richard Thompson Stadium the night before when the Diamondbacks were scheduled to meet the Mustangs.

A marriage of circumstance was born, and ultimately, the Cardinals topped the Mustangs in the season opener for a pair of the Valley’s defending district champions.

But more importantly than the on-field results, McAllen Memorial’s matchup with Harlingen High showed the importance of being adaptable, flexible and grateful for your opportunities in a high school football season where nothing appears guaranteed.

“Leave it all out there because it could be your last one,” said Mission High head coach Koy Detmer, whose Eagles won 51-7 on Friday night. “Those things really ring true to everybody right now because you don’t know. It was good to see our guys flying around and the atmosphere — of course, we didn’t have the packed stadium and things like that. But just to have the game atmosphere and the announcer and music and all those things. It was fun to be in a game again.”

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