In 1987, in Boise, football coach Jim White is chastising his players for an underwhelming half. Jim gets into a verbal altercation with one of the players, resulting in Jim throwing a football shoe with cleats at him. Following this incident, Jim is forced to move with his wife, Cheryl, and two daughters, Julie and Jamie. They settle down in McFarland, California, a predominantly Hispanic town. On their first night there, the family goes to a small restaurant and leaves to find a large gathering of Latinos in cars surrounding the place. One man makes suggestive motions toward Julie, prompting the family to leave faster.
White starts his new job as the life science/PE teacher and assistant football coach at school. During Jim’s PE class, three boys, the Diaz brothers Danny, Damacio, and David, are forced by their mother to leave. During a later PE class, Jim sits on the bleachers and watches the boys run around the track with Jamie joining him. He comments that the boys, particularly Victor and Johnny (who got cut from the football team) move very fast. Jim goes to Principal Camillo to convince him to let him start a cross country team to compete in the upcoming state championships. Jim also enlists Johnny’s help to recruit six more runners for the team, starting with Victor. Johnny asks the Diaz brothers, as well as two other students – Jose Cardenas and Thomas Valles. Thomas has gotten in trouble at school for being involved in altercations with other boys that mocked his younger sister for getting pregnant, so Jim negotiates for him to join the team to avoid suspension. Although the boys are initially reluctant, they agree to join the team and run with Jim across the town, with Danny lagging behind as he is the heaviest of the team.
After some training, the team goes to their first meet in Palo Alto as boys from the other schools taunt the McFarland team. The race commences, and the McFarland team finishes in last place. Knowing the boys are disappointed, Jim takes full responsibility for the loss to not let them get discouraged.
Having been late for his daughter’s birthday, Jim goes for a drive and sees Thomas sitting on a bridge over the road. He approaches him and notices a bruise on his eye, which Thomas says was his own fault because he tried to stop his father from hurting his hands so that he could keep working in the fields. Jim talks him down and tells him that he has good things ahead of him, encouraging him to continue doing something worthwhile. The Diaz brothers are pulled out of the team by their father, who wants them to keep working the fields. Jim goes to the brothers’ home, and the next morning goes out to work on the fields with them to help them keep training for the team.
A fundraiser is hosted to purchase new running shoes for the team, Jim meets Javi and Lupe, two of the car enthusiasts he remembers from their first night, and is relieved to learn that they are not gang members.
The team goes up for another race to qualify for the championships. The team competes, and manages to just break into the top four teams, enough to qualify. Meanwhile, a coach from Palo Alto gives Jim a card, saying he is interested in an open full-time position.
The people in town learn that Julie just turned 15 and decide to help organize a quinceañera for her. They bring Cheryl, Julie, and Jamie to the salon while everyone sets up at home. Thomas gives her a bracelet that his grandmother made. Later, Javi and Lupe offer to take Julie out for her own “parade”, with Thomas accompanying them. Not long after, their car is confronted by a group of punks that bother Javi. The authorities contact Jim, forcing him and Cheryl to drive to the scene and find Julie on the ground, with scrapes on her legs and shaking tearfully. Jim is angry over this, despite being assured that Julie was protected.
Jim meets with the Palo Alto district for the coaching position. The boys and his family learn about this, and are upset with him. He tells Cheryl that he could bring them a better life but Cheryl argues that it would be wrong for Jim to abandon the team and the friends they have made. The day arrives for the state championships. The whole community goes out to support the team. Jim sees Jose overexert himself at the start of the race and knows that he won’t have anything left at the end of the race. He concludes that this will cost McFarland the race. To his surprise, Danny runs faster and picks up the slack.
The judges tally their scores together and McFarland comes in first, and the team and town celebrate while Jim turns down the job offer from Palo Alto to remain in McFarland.