Cardinals, Hawks ready to battle in Bird Bowl

Harlingen High running back Leo Tienda (5) looks for running room between a pair of Harlingen South defenders during Bird Bowl XXIV on Friday at Boggus Stadium in Harlingen. The Cards won 23-16.

HARLINGEN — The Harlingen High Cardinals and Harlingen South Hawks know they’re fortunate to battle in the Bird Bowl this season, considering a few months ago having a football season wasn’t guaranteed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It makes this edition a little extra special, but the players and coaches aren’t buying into the hype. They’re treating today’s matchup like any other game, and the focus is on coming out with a District 32-6A Northwest Zone win.

“There was a time in the summer we didn’t think we were going to get to play at all. We’re excited just to play, and this being the Bird Bowl makes it that much better,” Hawks coach Brian Ricci said. “A lot of times when you have these big rival games you can get caught up in all the extra stuff, but we’re trying to stay focused on understanding this is a district zone game, and we’re going to go out and do what we do.”

Harlingen South got started on the right foot last week, opening its season with a 44-13 zone win against Donna North. The Cardinals picked up a game against McAllen Memorial about 24 hours before Friday’s kickoff and earned a 21-6 non-district victory.

Having a full week to prepare for an opponent has Harlingen High feeling confident and ready to take on the crosstown rival. Cardinals coach Manny Gomez said he’s looking for a complete team effort and wants his team to take advantage of every snap.

“We circle every game on the schedule. We take it a day at a time and a game at a time,” Gomez said. “Dominate every day, dominate every rep because you don’t know if tomorrow will be here. Everybody’s got a role and has to be the best at their role, every single time they get an opportunity, whether it’s two reps or two hundred reps. I know that our group of kids are going to play hard and I know (South’s group is) going to play hard as well, so it’ll be a fun night.”

Both teams will have a quarterback getting his first Bird Bowl start under center. Harlingen High senior quarterback Joe Zuniga started as a receiver in the rivalry game last year, but he’s excited to have the extra responsibility of leading his team this season. He said getting a win last week made the team more comfortable and that they’re ready to get under the lights.

“We’re just treating this one like it’s our next game and giving it all we’ve got every day,” Zuniga said. “The way I try to motivate the team is, it doesn’t start Friday morning, it starts Monday. We’re ready, we’ve been preparing all week. We just try to come with the right mindset. I feel like we got a lot of potential.”

After missing last season due to injury, Harlingen South junior Chase Roberts won a quarterback battle in the preseason and said he’s honored to get to lead the Hawks and “bring the positive energy” to the team. Roberts said the Hawks had a good week of practice, focusing on issues that presented themselves in the season opener like reducing penalties and being “dialed in” from the jump.

“It’s my first Bird Bowl, and I’m excited to get on the field with my teammates. Hopefully we can get the seniors a win in their last time playing it,” Roberts said. “This week everyone has been focused, dialed in, because we knew we had a big game. We all do our job. This year’s pretty special.”

Harlingen South four-year defensive starter David Cortez said this year he’s more relaxed than ever heading into the Bird Bowl, and he’s helping the younger players get into the same state of mind.

Cortez said his favorite thing about the rivalry game is bringing two high schools from the same town together to fight for bragging rights. He thinks the speed South is playing with this year will be a boost and help the Hawks get the win.

“If everybody does their job, what we’re coached to do, we’re going to be more than fine,” Cortez said. “Just stay relaxed, that’s what I’ve been preaching this entire week to those younger guys that are a little wide-eyed going into this game. You can’t treat it like it’s the spectacle that it is, because at the end of the day it’s just a high school football game that we need to win. We’re playing at a different level of speed, and you love to see it.”

Senior safety Nate Rodriguez feels prepared for South after the Cardinals faced another run-happy offense last week in McAllen Memorial. This will be his first start in the game, and he’s excited to take the field with his team and put on a show for the city.

“I just feel very grateful for this opportunity … for my team to come together for one last Bird Bowl, it means a lot to me. I’m already jittery,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully we come out with a win. I like South, I hope they do good, too, but I’m a Cardinal and we want a win. It brings both sides of the town together. We’re a city together, playing against each other. We hope for the best, but Harlingen (High) runs it.”