HARLINGEN — Although it was only a little after 8 in the morning, temperatures were already sweltering as the Harlingen Cardinals football team took the field at its mini-stadium for the first official day of practice Monday.
After a little light warm-up, the players were quickly broken up into groups and instructed to run, run and run some more. Some ran sprints on the track while others ran up and down the stadium stairs.
“Come on, guys! Let’s shake the summer off. It’s football season,” shouted one of the coaches.
The running continued for nearly an hour before the exhausted, sweat-drenched athletes were finally given a break.
“Welcome to Cardinals football,” yelled another coach. “There’s no time to waste!”
The Cards have less than three weeks to prepare for their season opener against Mission Veterans on Aug. 25. And with a bevy of talent set to return this season, including running back Leo Tienda, quarterback Jesse Castro and defensive end Edwin Gasca, much is expected from this year’s bunch.
Of course, much is always expected from the Cardinals. Head coach Manny Gomez wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Every year it’s the same thing,” Gomez said. “Expectations are always high around here and every year players say they want to do better than last year’s team, but talk is cheap. The work starts now and for the first day, these guys were not bad, but there is always room for improvement.”
This year’s team will have its hands full trying to live up to last year’s squad, which went 10-3, won a share of the District 32-6A title and advanced to the third round of the playoffs.
However, Gomez believes this year’s bunch has the talent and potential to match and even exceed the 2011 team, which went 13-1, won the league title outright and went four rounds deep in the postseason.
On offense the Cards are stacked. In addition to Tienda, who rushed for 1,849 yards and 25 touchdowns a season ago, and Castro, who passed for more than 1,800 yards and threw for 13 TDs, the Cards also have weapons in the form of wide receiver Kaynon Fuentes, tight end Jeriel Cervantes and wideout Ryan Villarreal.
Meanwhile on defense, the Cards will once again be solid with the return of Gasca, DE Anthony Rodelo, DL Sam Alonzo and DB Steven Martinez.
Still, this year’s new-look District 32-6A, which added Weslaco and Weslaco East this past realignment, won’t make things easy for the Red Birds.
“We’ll be prepared, though, for everyone we face,” Gomez said.
After Veterans, the Cards host Laredo United South in Week 2 then travel to San Antonio in Week 3 for a meeting against Regan on Sept. 9.
Their league opener comes on Sept. 23 against intracity rival Harlingen South when the Cards will look to win their ninth straight Bird Bowl.
The Cards end the regular season on Nov. 4 against intercity rival San Benito, which has beaten Harlingen in the past two Battles of the Arroyo – something that hadn’t happened since 2006-07. The last time the ’Hounds won three straight contests over the Cards was 1960-62.