EDINBURG — Edinburg Economedes athletic coordinator and head football coach Gabe Peña knows two things just about as well as anyone: the Rio Grande Valley and high school football.
Peña, a Port Isabel product who swapped out his Hawaiian shirt years ago for a pair of cowboy boots, has been coaching high school football across Texas for decades. Now entering his 11th season as the Jaguars head coach, Peña as well as his players and fellow coaches, are preparing for a season sure to be unlike any other.
“It’s going to be different. It’s already started off that way, but it’s excited us at the same time,” Peña said. “We’re not bored. This is not the normal every-day routine, obviously, but I think that’s given us an opportunity to have a little bit of extra bounce in our step, our staff as well as our players.”
More than anything, though, Peña and student-athletes at Edinburg Economedes are grateful for the opportunity to be able to return to the gridiron after nearly a year of physical separation as a football program.
“We haven’t been able to see our boys since spring break,” he said. “When they first came back to campus for practice last week on Wednesday, I had the goosebumps all over again. I felt like a little boy at heart. I’m enjoying the moment and every day is getting better.”
For the Jags, the 2020 season represents a unique opportunity to snap a playoff drought for one of the Valley’s most historic programs while giving their corner of Edinburg and the community at large something to rally around amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a year characterized chiefly by uncertainty.
“It’s really given (our student-athletes) a chance to really see that it’s possible we could be playing games and that if we’re able to play some football, do it safely and do it right, we can do other things eventually,” Peña said. “I think it’s (been) a great start. The bonding and the team-building that continues to foster itself right now can’t be replaced.”
The Jaguars are coming off a 2-8 campaign in a highly competitive District 31-6A last season.
This season, however, Econ must prepare for the rigors of a new-look 31-6A, as Donna North, Weslaco East and Weslaco High are replaced by Mission High, PSJA High and PSJA North. (La Joya High and La Joya Juarez-Lincoln too, who opted out of participating in football season due to insufficient interest from families of student-athletes.)
Those changes — paired with the lack of team spring and summer workouts and a shortened, delayed regular season — will make every contest mean more this year for an Econ squad with an experienced offense and physical defense led by quarterback Nathan Garcia and running back Fermin Hernandez and linebackers Raul Aguilar and Christian Flores.
“It’s like spring ball. We’re still getting kids (returning) every day,” Peña said. “We had COVID testing before we started so it provided us with a good foundation to build on right at the start. That was a big plus for us.”
The Jaguars are also facing some familiar challenges with new twists caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
For example, the Economedes football program has featured prominent players that split their time each year with family members on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in the RGV, some of whom traditionally do not return until later in the season.
This year has been no exception for Peña and the Jags, who have recently welcomed back a handful of those players while still waiting for others to return in the coming weeks.
It has forced Peña and the staff at Economedes to get creative with implementing health and safety protocols and COVID-19 mitigation strategies, but it also allowed them to get a big head start on planning as teams in other parts of Texas were already kicking off their regular seasons.
“At first there was some apprehension as to who was coming and who wasn’t, but fortunately the school district has provided us with some protocols and checks and balances that have kept us doing things in a safe manner,” Peña said. “I think that’s allowed our parents to believe we’re taking care of their kids and we’re hopefully leading them with a purpose and a vision.”
For Peña, though, nothing can top the feeling of safely pulling off a regular season for student-athletes in the Rio Grande Valley.
“It’s different this year, but it has given our community on the east side of Edinburg something to rally around along with the opening up of school,” he said. “Our school has always been the center point of this side of Edinburg. But now that we have sports going on — tennis, cross country, volleyball and football — it’s like there’s some renewed energy. I think you can sense it if you stay out here for a little bit.”