HIDALGO — Three years ago, the Hidalgo high school football squad tallied an 0-10 season. Now under the leadership of fourth-year head coach Monty Stumbaugh, the Pirates are looking down the barrel of a perfect season with one game remaining thanks in large part to one of the Rio Grande Valley’s most dominant defenses.

Hidalgo has cruised to a perfect 3-0 record through the opening month of the 2020 season, one that’s been shortened and delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite an untraditional offseason that prevented on-campus team practices and workouts for several months, the Pirates have made the most of their opportunities winning three out of four scheduled games in dominant fashion, most recently topping La Feria 35-10 in The Monitor’s Game of the Week on Friday.

“I thought they did well. We got some turnovers, especially down in the red zone,” Hidalgo head coach Monty Stumbaugh after his team’s win over the Lions, the Pirates’ first since 2012. “(La Feria) was driving and we got a fumble here, forced an interception there and held them to a field goal down here. They did great. I was very happy with them.

“Our effort was great. We forced a lot of turnovers and put ourselves in positions to capitalize off them. They did a great job.”

Hidalgo head football coach Monty Stumbaugh gives direction during a timeout against La Feria in a District 16-4A DI game at Bill Pate Stadium on Friday, Oct. 29, 2020, in Hidalgo. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

It’s another big step forward for a Hidalgo program that flipped a 2-8 record in 2018 into an 8-3 campaign in 2019 highlighted with the team’s first bi-district playoff appearance in years. But what appears to separate this year’s near-perfect Pirates’ squad is its lockdown defense, which is arguably the RGV’s best through the first month of the season.

Through the opening four weeks of the season, three Valley football teams have combined to pitch five shutouts defensively. The Mission High Eagles, Harlingen High Cardinals and Mercedes Tigers each pulled it off this past week — Thursday, Friday and Saturday, respectively — but the Pirates have done it twice in three games so far.

“I believe having a shutout speaks for itself,” Pirates senior linebacker Robert Toledano said. “We all have the same goal every week of being 1-0. Chemistry-wise, it’s like we are playing as one.”

Hidalgo opened up its season with back-to-back defensive shutouts in a 32-0 win over the Grulla Gators and a 31-0 victory over the Kingsville King Brahmas. The only touchdown the Pirates have allowed so far in 2020 came against La Feria with just 36 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

That has Hidalgo surrendering only an average of 3.3 points per game to District 16-4A DI opponents, which is the best mark defensively of any team in the Rio Grande Valley that has played at least three games.

Furthermore, Hidalgo’s 10 points allowed through three games marks the single best scoring defense throughout Texas at the Class 4A level, which bodes well for the Pirates after securing at least a share of the District 16-4A DI title and the district’s top playoff seed by beating La Feria on Friday.

“Our defense has been playing outstanding all year. We’ve just got to keep it going,” Stumbaugh said.

Hidalgo defensive player Dakoda Cervantes (12) grabs Grulla J.T. Trujio (1) as he carries the ball in a season opening game at Bill Pate Stadium on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in Hidalgo. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

On a unit manned by two-way standouts, the Pirates have playmakers at every level of the defense. For Hidalgo, it starts up front, namely at the defensive end spots where a pair of seniors have wreaked havoc all season.

Senior defensive end and tight end Kyle Perales uses his 6-foot-4 frame and raw athleticism to be the Pirates’ leading deep-ball target offensively and the leader of its pass rush on defense. Perales tallied a team-leading eight tackles for loss and seven hurries through the first two games of the season, while his partner on the other side Dakota Cervantes tallied three sacks in the squad’s season opener and a huge fumble return on the opening series against La Feria.

“We’re doing everything we have to do to stay conditioned and on top of our game,” Cervantes said. “We don’t come out here after just waking up thinking we’re going to win. No, we’ve got to work for it throughout the week and that’s what we do. It’s a team and team effort.”

On the back end, seniors Jonathan Treviño and Zach Carrera anchor a hard-hitting, ball-hawking secondary. Carrera, the team’s leading rusher, fell on a loose ball at the 2-yard line against the Lions to prevent a La Feria touchdown, while Treviño later nabbed a game-clinching interception.

But leading the entire group in the middle defensively is Toledano, the team’s leading tackler and a determined run-stopper who swallows up most runs between the tackles. Toledano has averaged 10.5 tackles per game through two district contests and it has forced teams to take more risks offensively that have typically backfired.

Hidalgo’s Dakoda Cervantes (12) points downfield before a play in a District 16-4A DI game against La Feria at Bill Pate Stadium on Friday, Oct. 29, 2020, in Hidalgo. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

The Pirates’ defense has capitalized by securing three interceptions and eight fumble recoveries through three games to build the Valley’s best turnover margin (+8) through the opening month of the 2020 season.

“We have strongly improved in all aspects of the defense, from the front line to all the defensive backs. We credit a lot to the strength and conditioning in the offseason, and also the coaches for motivating us to this year’s football season,” Toledano said. “(Both) have helped us a lot. We came in more physical, conditioned and mentally stronger.”

Hidalgo will wrap up its regular season with its District 16-4A DI finale against the Zapata Hawks at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Zapata.

With the Class 4A playoffs on the horizon and Class 5A and 6A schools continuing regular-season play, the Pirates could have an opportunity to add to their list of program firsts during the Stumbaugh era in 2020 by hosting a bi-district playoff game due to a shortage of available neutral site locations.

“It’s for the kids and I’m happy for them. We put in a lot of hard work. I travel over here every day and I put in a lot of miles every day because I love these kids,” Stumbaugh said. “I came in and told them, ‘This is our plan. This is what we want to do.’ They’re doing it and to be a part of it with them is very special, for me, to be a part of their success. That’s what I’ll remember: a group of kids that when I first came in, there were maybe 10 people in the stands. Now, people are coming to watch them play and it’s because they’ve earned it. They’ve worked hard and started believing. When kids start believing, they can do some great things.”

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