MISSION, Texas (KVEO) — The Sharyland Pioneer Diamondbacks will carry their undefeated record into San Antonio on Saturday to take on the Liberty Hill Panthers in the quarterfinals of the UIL 5A Division 2 Football Championship.
Pioneer faces a tough Liberty Hill team that rushes for nearly 400 yards per game and averages 51 points per game. A positive note for Diamondback supporters is that the Sharyland team averages 55 points per game and more than 350 yards passing per game compared to the measly 23 yards passing per game averaged by the Panthers.
However, Liberty Hill’s bruising run game promises to command a majority of time possession to the San Antonio school. Pioneer will need to slow down the Panthers rushing attack in order to control this game.
But even if Pioneer falls short in this contest, they are still among the greatest high school football teams in Rio Grande Valley history.
The almanac of RGV football stretches back into the early 1930s. The greatest teams have reached the quarterfinals of their respective championships before hitting a brick wall against a San Antonio school. Just over a coveted dozen have reached the semifinals and a golden pair have reached the finals of the UIL tournament.
1930s-1940s: First Round Knockouts
The first team to reach the quarterfinals round was the 1931 Harlingen Cardinals, who easily defeated Corpus Christi in the first round of the 1A Championship before being annihilated by Beaumont 38-6.
RGV schools would fail to make it to the quarterfinals for the remainder of the 1930s and the entirety of the 1940s. A few schools would make it out of the bi-district game to reach the regional round but those teams all fell short of the mark.
1950s-1960s: The Golden Age
It would be another two decades before an RGV school would return to the final eight of the football UIL playoffs. However, once the 1950s began, a golden age of RGV football kicked off.
Harlingen returned to the quarterfinals in 1950 after defeating Alice. Now in the 2A conference, the Cardinals would face Austin in the quarterfinals and lose 35-0.
In 1951, Brownsville would become the first RGV team to reach the semifinals. The 3A school would roll passed San Antonio Edison before being bested by Temple.
Also in 1951, Donna would reach the semifinals of the 2A tournament where they were defeated by Waco La Vega.
McAllen and Edinburg would equal those feats in 1952 and 1953 by reaching the semifinals of the 3A tournament. Just like Brownsville, McAllen would be defeated by Temple. Edinburg would tie Port Neches 7-7 following an undefeated regular season, however, unknown circumstances elevated the east Texas school to the finals where they became state champs.
Also in 1953, Lyford made their only trip to the quarterfinals in the school’s history before losing to Deer Park in Conference 1A.
McAllen would return to the Final Four a year later only to see Port Neches make another trip to the championship.
The Weslaco Panthers would see their first trip to the semifinals in 1955 but a 26-7 loss to Hillsboro would keep them out of the 2A championship game.
No team would reach the semifinals in 1956, ending a five-year streak in RGV history that has yet to be bested.
Mercedes would add a tally to their name in 1957 by reaching the quarterfinals of the 2A playoffs for the only time in their school’s history. The Tigers would eventually fall 28-8 to West Columbia, though.
RGV schools would not reach the later rounds for the remainder of the decade, however, the 1960s brought on unprecedented success.
The 1961 San Benito Greyhounds grabbed the school’s only semifinal milestone after an undefeated regular season propelled them to the Final Four where they lost to Nederland. The Greyhounds would never again make it to even a quarterfinal game.
San Benito’s semifinal would be overshadowed by the 1961 Donna Redskins, who completed the most coveted season in Rio Grande Valley history.
Donna carried an impressive (8-2) record into the 2A postseason where they shut out Refugio 32-0, squeezed past Devine 12-7, and overpowered Sweeny 32-14 before setting up for the final against Quanah.
Donna and Quanah played as equally matched teams with both squads posting just over 250 total yards. However, Donna forced three turnovers on the day which stifled the Quanah attack.
An impressive 4th-quarter saw Donna score 16 unanswered points to come back from a deficit to win the game 28-21. With the win, the Donna Redskins achieved the only UIL football championship in RGV history.
Though impressive, Donna would never again be able to duplicate their success. The school has only reached a quarterfinal once more in the last 59 seasons, which came in 1967.
And although other RGV schools would be unable to win a championship, many still managed to compile their own admirable records.
PSJA would look to equal Donna’s feat by reaching the finals of the 1962 3A Championship. The Bears rolled past their first three playoff opponents and faced Dumas in the final.
Against Dumas, PSJA was unable to muster an offensive attack. The Bears took a 3-0 lead into halftime before conceding two touchdowns to Dumas. PSJA’s six interceptions coupled with only nine first downs on the day created a recipe for a championship loss.
As of 2021, this is the last time an RGV school has reached a UIL football championship game.
The rest of the 1960s saw bits and pieces of success from the Rio Grande Valley.
PSJA returned to another semifinal in 1963, Los Fresnos and Mission made their inaugural appearances in the quarterfinals in 1964 and 1968, respectively, and McAllen became the first RGV school to reach the quarterfinals in the 4A conference in 1964.
Adding to RGV dominance in this period were the St. Joseph Academy Bloodhounds of Brownsville who secured the 1962 Texas Catholic Interscholastic League (TCIL) AAA championship, the first of three for the private school.
However, once the decade came to an end, RGV football entered a dry spell that would doom the area for decades.
1970s-1980s: The Dark Ages
Expanded playoff brackets and an influx of new schools across Texas created more opportunity for RGV schools to get farther in the postseason. However, it also created even more opportunity for other regions to beef up their programs and knockout RGV teams early.
Undefeated regular seasons from Los Fresnos (1971), Harlingen (1976), and McAllen (1980), among others, are left as afterthoughts lost to time due to first round exits.
This ‘dead ball’ era of RGV football saw few teams see post season success.
The 1979 Port Isabel Tarpons became the first team to reach the quarterfinals in more than a decade before losing to Edna in the 2A bracket.
A promotion to 3A the following season would not stop the bayside school from emerging as one of the RGV’s all-time best schools. In 1980 they would reach the quarterfinal and in 1981 the Tarpons would march all the way to the semifinal where they would lose to Cameron Yoe.
RGV schools would fail to reach later rounds for the remainder of the decade until Harlingen returned to the quarterfinals in 1989 after a 39-year absence. In doing so, the Cardinals became the first RGV team to reach the Final Eight in the 5A Conference.
Edcouch-Elsa reached the quarterfinals in 1989 for the first time in the school’s history.
While public schools were unable to make a strong impact in this period, Brownsville’s St. Joseph Academy added two more titles in 1977 and 1980 as a member of TCIL.
With the close of the 1980s came the ending of another two-decade chapter in RGV football that saw a lot of advancement to the fourth round, but not much after that.
1990s-2000s: The Gilded Age
If the 1950s and 1960s were the ‘golden age’ then the 1990s and 2000s are the RGV’s gilded age due to many teams reaching the fourth round but being plagued by a lack of progress past the quarterfinals.
Interestingly, the first RGV team of the 1990s to make a deep playoff run was the Mission Eagles, who reached the semifinals with future NFL quarterback Koy Detmer handling passing duties.
Despite Detmer’s presence, the team fell one game short of the 5A-Division 1 final with a loss to Houston Aldine.
Several teams would reach the quarterfinals throughout the decade: Port Isabel (1990), McAllen (1992), Harlingen (1994), Edcouch-Elsa (1997), Edinburg (1998), and Raymondville (1998), but all of them would fall short of advancing any further.
Only the 1994 Port Isabel Tarpons and 1999 Edinburg Bobcats reached the semifinals, both were easily defeated in their respective games.
The 99 Bobcacts do hold the distinction as being the last RGV team to reach the semifinals, though.
The new millennium did not bring newfound success for the RGV.
Instead, a plethora of first and second round exits covered the area and only a handful of teams were able to advance to the quarterfinals.
Mission (2002), Port Isabel (2002), Harlingen (2003, 2005), PSJA North (2003), Sharyland (2003), Santa Rosa (2007), and La Feria (2008) would all reach the fourth round and play for a shot in the semifinal, but each of them would come up short.
The regular consistency of RGV teams making the fourth round would evaporate as the years waned on.
2010s-Present: The Dark Ages: Act II
The 2010s saw an immense expansion of the UIL postseason. The organization created a 6A conference and now has each of the conferences split up into two divisions. Either 64 or 128 teams qualify for the 12 separate playoff brackets as each of the over 1000 schools fight for participation.
With an area as large as the Rio Grande Valley, it should be plausible for a school here or there to squeeze through to the quarterfinals or even the semifinals.
However, fate’s grim reality has only let a few teams advance to even the quarterfinals in the past decade.
Harlingen (2011), Port Isabel (2012), Mission Veterans (2018) and this year’s Sharyland Pioneer Diamondbacks are the only teams to reach the quarterfinals in the last 10 years.
Regardless of how Pioneer performs on Saturday, they have accomplished a rare feat for RGV schools from the last decade. A win would catapult them as one of the all-time greats but even with a loss they could inspire better play for the area throughout the 2020s.