Continuity and tradition helps Harlingen High find continued success

Harlingen High senior quarterback Joe Zuniga, left, and senior linebacker Ezvyn Zuniga stand under the "Cardinal Spirit Never Dies" sign that stands over the practice field. The Cardinals will look to build on the program's tradition when they face San Antonio Stevens on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Buccaneer Stadium in Corpus Christi in the area round of the Class 6A Division I playoffs. By Claire Cruz, Valley Morning Star

HARLINGEN — There’s a sign that stands over the Harlingen High practice field that reads, “Cardinal spirit never dies.”

That’s not just a slogan for the Harlingen High program. It’s something the Cardinals buy into, and it creates a continuity and tradition that coach Manny Gomez takes pride in. More than half of the 15 coaches on Gomez’s staff played for the Cardinals when they were in high school.

“It’s something that’s like a current. All you have to do is jump in it, and it’ll take you places. That’s the way I see what the continuity does that we have at HHS, it’s a current that does not stop,” Gomez said. “The standards and expectations are understood, so you don’t have to mold these coaches. They are already molded because they were part of the program, and I think that’s why there’s been a lot of success with what we’ve done and continue to do.”

Part of the success the tight-knit Cardinals have achieved this year is clinching a bi-district win over Edinburg North last Friday, which set up a Class 6A Division I area-round matchup with the San Antonio Stevens Falcons set for 3 p.m. Saturday at Buccaneer Stadium in Corpus Christi.

All but three of the current Cardinals coaches were part of the program, either as coaches or players, in 2010 when Harlingen High and Stevens last faced off in the playoffs in a memorable contest. The Cardinals, led by then-quarterback and now assistant coach Kevin Ledesma, lost to the Falcons 31-30 in a double-overtime Class 5A Division I third-round game.

The words “rematch” and “redemption” started floating around social media last week, but Gomez isn’t using 2010 as fuel. He said the previous game was mentioned briefly in the locker room, but just to say the Cardinals have played and gone toe-to-toe with Stevens before.

“We don’t dwell on the past. We may reminisce, but we don’t dwell on it,” Gomez said. “Bottom line is, every game is different. If I want to get specific, they have a new head coach, only one coach on their staff that was part of their team (in 2010), which is their O-line coach. This is just the next opportunity, the next game on our mind. If you have too much drama or this and that, it can overwhelm these kids’ mind. My thing is, let’s just be 1-0 every week.”

The coaches may not be bringing up that game, but the players are familiar with it and the 2010 team’s success. Senior quarterback Joe Zuniga said playing well and coming out with a win in this game has a little extra meaning, particularly to him, since he considers Ledesma a role model.

“We’re just trying to use 2010 as motivation and trying to not look back and just move forward,” Zuniga said. “We like to call Buccaneer Stadium our second home, because we usually don’t lose there. We’ll get our redemption. We don’t need to repeat history, we need to change history. Whatever happens in that game, it’s going to be for (Ledesma), because I know 2010 deserved to go a long way.”

Zuniga said the Cardinals are aware of the “Valley Week” reputation, and they’re aiming to prove it wrong. One thing that helps the current players believe they can do that is having Cardinals legends on their sideline, telling them it’s possible to clear those hurdles, like taking down San Antonio teams, because they did it before.

“They’re like role models to us. They’ve done what we’ve done. They’ve been in our shoes,” Zuniga said. “They like to use that as motivation, that they’ve been (deep in the playoffs) and none of us have yet, so we just want to get there, too.”

Senior linebacker Ezvyn Zuniga appreciates the history of success Harlingen High has, and he’s ready to create a new chapter. As a three-year letterman and leader of the team, he’s encouraging his teammates to believe they can beat Stevens on Saturday and leave their own stamp on the tradition of Cardinals football.

“A lot of what we’re trying to say is, we want to be remembered,” Ezvyn Zuniga said. “We reached our goal to get to the second round. But now we’re trying to get past it. We haven’t had a team get past the second round since 2015, so we’re trying to surpass that. We want to add on to that (history.) We want to add on to Coach Gomez’s legacy, Coach Ledesma’s legacy, all those previous legacies and make our own mark.”