ORANGE GROVE — With the offense at the line of scrimmage, a trio of receivers to the right side of the formation look up in unison for the call.

Coach Mark Delpercio stands off to the side. Holding an old clipboard with a Texas flag sticker on the back, Orange Grove’s new head coach signals in the play.

“Let’s go here! And here!” he says as he shows the offense the play by holding up two fists.

In an instant, the ball the is snapped and the pass goes to receiver Jose Aguilar who stretches to make the catch and sprints upfield through a group of defenders. Delpercio’s energetic clap shows his approval.

“Good!” he shouts. “Way to make the grab and way to get to the green grass.”

Turns out what worked for Delpercio before and made him one of the winningest coaches in Delaware high school football also works in Texas. In fact, the game is exactly the same in Texas as it is in Delaware. However, seemingly everything else — from the way teams prepare and the number of time coaches are able to spend with athletes, to the makeup of his coaching staff — is different.

With a 30-year career behind him, Delpercio is in Texas chasing his dream of coaching high school football on the grandest stage anywhere in the country.

It’s a dream that started some 1,700 miles away in his hometown of Middletown, Del., where he was one of the state’s winningest high school football coaches. Delpercio guided the Middletown Cavaliers to seven state championship games, winning Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association state titles in 2007, 2011 and 2012.  The program was 151-62 in that 10-year run. However, through all the wins and state championships, the veteran coach always wondered what it would be like to be a head coach in Texas.

After all, in this business, there are no brighter lights nor anything more storied than Texas high school football. Fed by books, Hollywood, and tales of gigantic stadiums and crazed communities, football here has a reputation as big as the state itself.

“Anyone who has ever followed high school sports in this nation knows about Friday Night Lights and Texas high school football,” said Delaware high school football coach Bill DiNardo, a close friend of Delpercio. “High school football is bigger in Texas. It’s everything in Texas. Everyone knows that.”

Delpercio knew, and he yearned for the challenge.

“I think that anybody who coaches high school football in America and tells you that they aren’t envious of Texas high school football is lying to you. It’s not to say that Texas does it better. It’s the emphasis on it, which I love. It’s the passion which the communities have for high school football.”

So after the 2016 season, Delpercio announced that he was retiring from teaching in the state of Delaware to begin looking for an opportunity in Texas. He was even willing to take a job as an assistant anywhere here while he searched for a head coaching position. That brought him south in the summer of 2017 as an assistant at Ridge Point High School southwest of Houston. He spent a season at the big Class 6A program while inquiring about head coaching vacancies around the state. That search ended in February when he was hired at Orange Grove.

Packed in his 1992 Ford Ranger, which he bought new when he began coaching years ago back home, Delpercio left the furious pace of Houston for the rural setting of South Texas.

The town of Orange Grove is surrounded by farm and ranch land although for many it has become a distant suburb of Corpus Christi, which is about a 45-minute drive away.

There’s a four-way stop with blinking stop signs in the middle of town. On one corner is the hub of the community; a full-service Stripes which is open 24 hours a day. The other three corners hold Klatt’s Hardware and Lumber, Herschaps — where they make and sell their own beef jerky — and an old Exxon service station which houses a lot full of junked cars and trucks just down the road from a Dairy Queen.

As far as Texas goes, Orange Grove High School isn’t a big school, nor is it a small school. Most recently, it reported an enrollment of 564 students, a third of whom live in the rural area in about a 10-mile radius of town. It makes for a proud and wholesome community with a blue-collar approach to things.

Orange Grove screams small-town Texas, something that’s quickly grown on its new football coach. In some ways, Orange Grove is a lot like Middletown before it began to experience a growth explosion about 20 years ago. Middletown went from a rural community with one high school of about 500 students to two high schools each with an enrollment of close to 2,000. What used to be farmland has been replaced by development after development.

Being in Orange Grove reminds Delpercio of his youth back home. Life here moves at just the perfect comfortable pace for a full-time coach. With a small Lowe’s Market for groceries just down the street from his house and Michael and Mom’s, a restaurant known for its giant chicken fried steaks, homemade onion rings and pies, just past the blinking stop sign, there isn’t much more Delpercio needs.

“I joke that I live about a mile from school here in Orange Grove, and it takes about three minutes to get here and three minutes and 10 seconds if there’s heavy traffic, and heavy traffic means that there might be a car coming the other way turning into the parking lot,” he said. “That’s heavy traffic here. Otherwise, I can make it here from my house in three minutes.”

His new surroundings have allowed him to focus on what he’s in Texas for in the first place: football.

His year at Ridge Point and his short time in Orange Grove have already proven to him that everything he thought he knew about Texas high school football was indeed true. The game itself is the same, but everything else around the sport here is bigger, more passionate and over-the-top. His first practice with the Bulldogs in Orange Grove this spring was a perfect example. The program practices in an indoor facility that would make many colleges envious and that most high school coaches in other states can’t even fathom. It’s a towering 35,000-square-foot indoor athletic training facility with a 50-yard artificial turf football field. A series of giant sliding garage doors along the facility allows for light and a breeze. There’s also a weight room and meeting rooms for coaches.

“You see a lot of that here in Texas, but that’s something you certainly don’t see in Delaware,” he said.

There are other areas of high school athletics in Texas that coaches in other states simply don’t have the advantage of like the use of an athletic period.

According to University Interscholastic League rules, students participating in a sport are allowed to have one athletic period in their schedule. For football, that means a 50-minute period during the day for practice. This is aside from after-school workouts.

It’s a set-up unique to the Lone Star State, Texas High School Coaches Association president D.W. Rutledge said.

“It’s really something that’s beneficial to coaches and the kids as well,” he said. “During the season, coaches will use that time to practice anything from kicking game to preparing for that week’s game. In the offseason, it’s used for conditioning, speed and strength development and teaching character traits and leadership skills… all the intangibles that go along with sports. It’s important too because it allows for daily interaction between the kids and coaches.”

Simply put, the athletic period equals more organized practice time.

“The one thing when people ask me what do I find to be the biggest difference from Delaware and Texas, the word that comes to mind is time: the amount of time that you can spend with your players,” Delpercio said. “That’s the athletic period. Doing that is against the rules in most states. You can’t do that in most states.”

Another difference is that in Delaware, most high school coaching staffs are made up of a head coach, who usually teaches a class throughout the day, and a group of volunteer assistants. At Middletown, he spent most of his day teaching in a classroom. As for his coaching staff, saw them only after school for practice since almost the entire staff worked off campus. In Texas, coaching staffs are made up of coaches who for the most part teach at the same school they coach at.

The advantages coaches have in Texas mean more of an emphasis on winning; at least that’s how Delpercio sees it.

“There’s more pressure because you’re getting paid and you’re getting paid well… you ought to be successful,” he said. “I mean, losing is not going to be tolerated here by either the community or the school board or the superintendent in terms of, ‘Hey, you need to get the job done. We’re not paying you just to go out there. It’s to develop young men and to win football games.’ I think in other states, not being successful is a little more tolerated.”

It isn’t that he’s worried about winning, nor is he afraid of losing. In fact, Delpercio is confident in his ability and in Orange Grove’s tradition as a perennial playoff team. The Bulldogs have a streak of seven straight postseason appearances. If everything comes together as planned, Orange Grove will have an eighth-straight playoff run this fall.

“Coaching is coaching. Guys move all of the time in college football and they don’t change the way they coach from one state to another,” he said. “It’s the same here in Texas. I know what I did in Delaware will work here.”

Those familiar with his work and those who have spent time around Delpercio believe him.

“He’s a super competitive person, and he really knows his Xs and Os. He’s going into that program and he’s going to preach family and togetherness, and he’s going to build that team from there. He’ll be successful. It’s Mark Delpercio. In Delaware, whatever he touched turned to gold,” DiNardo said.

DiNardo, Middletown’s first head coach, started Delpercio in coaching, hiring the 20 year old at the junior high. Delpercio quickly rose through the ranks to a top assistant, and when DiNardo left Middletown for rival Salesianum, Delpercia took over the program. When Delpercio left Middletown after the 2016 season for Texas, he and DiNardo’s teams had won seven of the last 13 Delaware Div. I state titles.

Orange Grove High School principal Gil Salazar said Delpercio is unique because he simply doesn’t hang his hat on his past. Delpercio is confident and stern like most good high school coaches, yet modest and grounded. Salazar knows about all the wins and state championships back in Delaware, but he’s never heard the coach speak of it. That, he says, speaks volumes of someone in a profession built on wins and losses and records.

“He’s a humble guy,” the longtime educator and Falfurrias native said. “He doesn’t talk about what he did in Delaware. He’s not about all the trophies and rings and things that coaches traditionally do. He’s really different.”

Delpercio’s blue-collar approach to coaching is a product of his upbringing in the sport. He played high school ball at Middletown and even tried to walk on at the University of Delaware. It didn’t take long at the Div. I college program to realize the difference between high school and big-time college football.

“I wanted to walk-on, but they had an All-American center and a bunch of guys,” Delpercio said. “I was a lineman and a linebacker in high school. I was like, ‘I can go ‘Rudy’ all I’d like, but I’m going to end up getting my butt kicked,’” he said. “I needed to take a different avenue.”

However, it was at the University of Delaware that the seeds of his coaching career were planted. Delpercio enrolled in a football coaching class which was taught by legendary Delaware coach Tubby Raymond. With a career that spanned nearly 50 years and 300 wins, the late coach is still one of the all-time winning coaches in college football. Delpercio took his class in the middle of Raymond’s career at Delaware. Even then, the old coach was already a college football icon.

The football class focused on Raymond’s ”Delaware Wing-T” and was meant for football players to help them learn the offense and their individual assignments. Delpercio wasn’t on the team, so instead of learning one position, he picked up on the entire offense, which practically made him a tutor of sorts for some of the football players in the class.

“When I took the class, I wasn’t trying to learn a position,” Delpercio said. “I was more interested in the big picture. It focused mostly on scheme. I began to realize that the football players taking the class were asking me questions because they were only focused on their position. I really enjoyed it, so I started coaching.”

Orange Grove selected Delpercio out of a pool of more than 100 coaches who applied for the job. Salazar was part of the school’s preliminary hiring committee. The committee’s job was the pore over the applicants and create a short list of candidates. In the mass of resumes and applications, “Delaware” stood out.

“What he put on paper is who he is in person,” Salazar said. “It’s one thing to have a winning record, but it’s a different thing to see a coach and his philosophy come together for yourself. He’s looking to develop young men and women as individual students. He’s talking about the whole student on the field, off the field and in the classroom. When we met him, he spoke about his expectations of the kids. He said he had been successful in Delaware, but there wasn’t a peep about his record or state championships. The success he spoke about, he gave all the credit to the kids that played for him.

“I think Orange Grove got lucky. Coach Delpercio is really a neat guy and a heck of a football coach.”