FALFURRIAS — When the Hidalgo Pirates touched the ball for the first time in the fourth quarter of their bi-district playoff game, they knew it was go-time.

Trailing by a touchdown with a little under nine minutes remaining in regulation, the Pirates marched methodically and slowly downfield after stuffing a fake field-goal attempt to take over at their own 39-yard line.

Hidalgo drove 42 yards in about six minutes to set up a climactic fourth and 2 with little time left and only one timeout to use. The Pirates lined up in an i-formation and powered the ball up the middle into a sea of Alice defenders.

The Pirates’ ball carrier was so close to the first-down marker that the officials brought out the chain gang for an official measurement. The Coyotes’ defense held and stopped the Pirates by less than half the length of the football from picking up a first down with 2:02 left to play, as Alice secured a 21-14 victory in heart-racing fashion over the Pirates in their Class 4A DI bi-district playoff tilt Thursday night at Jersey Bull Stadium in Falfurrias.

Alice’s Matthew Molina (21) misses a catch as Hidalgo’s defender Hugo Jauregui (16) knocks the ball loose during a high school Bi-District playoff game at Jersey Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Falfurrias. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

“Our kids came in and played their tails off,” Hidalgo Pirates head football coach Monty Stumbaugh said. “You’ve got to understand that when you come to play people up here, you’ve got to earn their respect. They think it’s an open week and our kids got that respect.”

“Our effort was great. Our kids played their tails off. I love them to death and with the effort they gave here tonight, they’ve really been a shining light for this community. I’m very proud of them and we played hard.”

The Coyotes got the scoring started early, finding the end zone on a 27-yard pass from senior quarterback Jacob Guzman to junior receiver Matthew Molina.

But that was all the damage the Alice offense would inflict in the early going, as the Pirates’ defense rode strong performances from senior defensive ends Dakoda Cervantes and Kyle Perales to shut out their opponents for the remainder of the first half.

Hidalgo’s offense struggled to get started against a physical Alice defensive front, but the Pirates scored on their final drive of the first half with 1:01 to go until intermission on a 2-yard QB sneak from senior quarterback Jacob Martinez to take a 7-6 advantage into the half.

Hidalgo’s Dakota Cervantez (12) in the grasp of Alice’s quarterback Jacob Guzman (6) during a high school Bi-District Playoff game at Jersey Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Falfurrias. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

Alice came firing out of the gate in the second half and scored two rushing touchdowns, both off of scrambles out of the shotgun in the red zone by Guzman.

The Pirates, meanwhile, were without Martinez for a good chunk of the second half. However, back-up signal-caller Steven Martinez, a junior, delivered Hidalgo’s biggest passing play of the night when he hit junior receiver Kevin Cerda down the sideline on a monster pickup.

The very next play, Pirates senior running back Zach Carrera broke off a 35-yard run — the team’s longest rushing play of the night — for Hidalgo’s second touchdown on the ground and narrowed the deficit back to 7 where it ultimately stayed.

“Our kids were trying to make a play,” Stumbaugh said of the stop on fourth down and short. “I’ll have to watch the film to see what happened. If I called it wrong, I’ll take all the heat because these kids played their tails off. It was just a little thing here and there and in the playoffs, those little things will cost you. But I saw my guys try to pick up a first down, tie the game and win.”

The loss brings a season full of firsts to a close for Hidalgo.

Hidalgo Jacob Martinez (1) breaks the plane of the end zone for a touchdown with Alice’s defender Gus Trejo (28) during a high school Bi-District Playoff game at Jersey Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Falfurrias. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

By taking the field Thursday night, this group of Pirates became the first team from Hidalgo to clinch back-to-back playoff appearances since 2012-13. The group also became the first Pirates’ squad to win a share of a district championship in more than a decade.

Most importantly, however, for Stumbaugh and his seniors, it marks the culmination of the latest chapter in one of the greatest turnaround tales in recent Rio Grande Valley high school football history.

Carrera, Cervantes, Martinez, Perales and the other Pirates’ seniors first started out with Stumbaugh at 0-10 in 2017. But at the end of a 2020 season defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty all around, the crew graduates as one of the most decorated senior classes on the gridiron in school history.

“They’ve meant the world. Whenever I first came in, everybody was telling them, ‘You can’t do anything here,’ and that they don’t play football here. Well now, we do and all our sports are coming up. The kids bought in. They won in middle school and they won in high school — as sophomores, juniors and seniors. They just bought in, they listened to this old crazy man right here and everything goes to them. They did the time, the work, the weights and the whole shebang throughout the summer. They showed the little ones, ‘If you want to be good, these are the things you’ve got to do.’ To me, they’re everything for this program and that’s the reason I came back: because of them.

“I told them I loved them, I was proud of them and that they should hold their heads up high,” Stumbaugh added. “They’re Pirates and I love them. If they ever need anything, they know where I’ll be at.”

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch