Things are looking up for the Harlandale football program this season.
The Indians are off to a 3-0 start and they moved into their new, spacious field house on Monday.
Now comes the real fun: Harlandale takes on Medina Valley (2-1) in their District 29-4A opener at 7 p.m. Thursday at Harlandale Memorial Stadium.
"The ante goes up because it's the start of district," Harlandale coach Isaac Martinez said. "Everybody is 0-0. That's the great thing about getting to have nondistrict games. You get to warm up and test your kids and put them in situations that you think they're going to be in during the district race."
The Panthers edged Harlandale in overtime last year and are favored to take the 29-4A title, while the Indians are picked to finish out of the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Harlandale started out 3-1 last year, but finished 3-7 after going 0-6 in 28-4A play.
Senior center Efrain Jimenez said the Indians are playing with a renewed sense of purpose after last year's collapse.
"We're excited to go out there and prove we're not going to be fifth in our district," Jimenez said. "We're fired up. We want to finish first."
Indians braced for tough test against Medina Valley
Martinez said Jimenez embodies the commitment the players on this year's team have made to get Harlandale back in the playoffs.
"I don't know too many kids who want to win more than Efrain wants to win," Martinez said. "He's player who leads us by example. He's at the field house early every day because he just can't wait to get here."
While the Indians are brimming with confidence after knocking off South San (31-6), Lanier (58-16) and Burbank (42-21), Martinez said they have no illusions of the challenge Medina Valley presents.
"I told the kids that this would be the toughest game on our schedule," Martinez said. "Year in and year out, Medina Valley has a fine program. We'll definitely have our hands full, but I think our kids are very much up for the challenge."
The Panthers opened their season with a 40-13 victory against La Vernia, but lost a 49-47 shootout to Boerne the next week. They rebounded with a 28-14 win over rival Hondo on Sept. 14 and had an open date last week.
Harlandale, which also was open last week, has recaptured some of the mojo it lost during its collapse in district play last season.
"Right now, the thing that I think we're doing real well is that we have the right mindset," Martinez said. "The kids that we have out here have the skills and the talent that a lot of our kids have had in the past. There's a mindset right now that the kids believe they can go out there and are capable of doing well.
"Whenever you can get your team believing in those things, you're going to have a distinct advantage. I think we feel that we're capable of going out there and playing well. I think that mindset has come from the leadership from our senior class. It's been complemented very well by our junior class."
Ramon setting pace for Harlandale offense
For the first time "in a very long time," Martinez said, Harlandale has no sophomores on its varsity squad.
"That's not very common," Martinez said. "There are a lot of kids who have decided this is where they want to be. This is what they like, so they're hanging around. They walk on the field with a lot of confidence, and I think that's an integral part as to why we're 3-0 right now."
Junior quarterback Brandon Ramon, an all-district wide receiver last season, has carried the Indians' offense, completing 39 of 61 passes for 550 yards and nine TDs. He has had three passes intercepted.
"What Brandon does well is that he's just an athlete," Martinez said. "He makes things happen. In my opinion when he's out there, the game moves in slow motion for him. Anytime the game moves in slow motion for you, you're in good shape. And we're in good shape because of that."
The Indians' top receivers are seniors Nathan Ibarra and Jonathan Rodriguez, who have four TD catches each. Ibarra has caught 12 passes for 204 yards, and Rodriguez has 13 receptions for 178 yards.
Junior Nicholas Martinez is the top rusher with 219 yards and two TDs.
"The key to our defense is going to be our foot speed," Martinez said. "We've got some guys on the defensive side who run a sub-5 (in the 40-yard dash). We are a little faster than we've been."
The defense is led by tackle Julian DeLeon, end Nicholas Rodriguez, linebacker Christian Pena, and backs Victor Flores and Brandon Garza.
"These kids are a little small in stature, but things could be worse," Martinez said. "They could be small and slow, OK? But they get to the ball in a hurry. I think that's what's given us the edge defensively. I think we're making more plays because of that."
Martinez, 52, is in his 19th season as Harlandale head coach and 30th with the Indians. Harlandale has gone 107-85-1 and made the playoffs seven times under Martinez.