WESLACO — Throughout the summer and fall, high school football programs across the Rio Grande Valley have waited eagerly for their opportunities to return to the gridiron for competitive games again, perhaps none more so than the Weslaco High Panthers.

The program is coming off back-to-back trips to the Class 6A DI regional semifinals of the state playoffs, and the Panthers are ready to prove that the path back for Valley teams still runs through Weslaco.

Second-year head coach Roy Stroman believes Weslaco High’s four playoff wins over the past two seasons and experience playing against the state’s top large schools in the postseason has positioned his team well to compete in a loaded District 32-6A and make another deep playoff push.

“I don’t know if this has ever happened, but we had three (31-6A) teams make it to the third round last year. That’s something you just don’t read, see or hear about, so there was a lot of competition there too,” Stroman said. “Coming over to 32-6A, we’ve got the old rivalries with the Harlingens and San Benitos and Los Fresnos and the Brownsville Hanna-Weslaco game. Now we’re also looking at Rivera and Donna North, but to me, the real dark horse in our district is Harlingen South.

Weslaco high defensive end Alexis Munoz blocks during football practice at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“It’s going to be just as competitive. We’re going to take it one game at a time, but I believe right now that because of the short season, no scrimmage and not being able to get in pads as soon as we can, our most important thing right now is just trying to get better as a football team.”

In 2019, Weslaco High leaned on its high-octane offense to lead the way as it looked to replace a majority of its defensive starters.

In 2020, however, the script will be flipped, as the Panthers will rely heavily on one of the Rio Grande Valley’s most experienced defenses as they seek to work new starters into the fold at a few key positions offensively.

Overall, the team returns eight defensive starters headlined by one of the Valley’s most elite linebacker tandems in seniors Josh Burket and Jesse Perez, a pair of rangy and athletic defenders who are quick enough to drop back into the secondary and big enough to play along the defensive line and aid in the team’s top-flight pass rush spearheaded by senior defensive end Alexis Muñoz.

Burket, a Second Team All-Area pick by The Monitor in 2019, led the Panthers with 123 tackles last season while adding eight tackles for loss, an interception and a sack. Perez, the team’s second-leading tackler in 2019, tallied 96 tackles, four forced fumbles, three sacks and an interception during his junior season.

Weslaco high linebacker Josh Burket makes his way through the offensive line during football practice at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“Our box is probably going to be our strength,” Stroman said. “They’re both 6-foot-2 inside linebackers. They’re rangy, they can cover ground and they’re fast. But the most important thing is that they have control of that defense. They’re our leaders and they really help each other out. We have a very experienced defensive line as well.”

Weslaco High returns seven starters offensively, as well, but must replace All-Area quarterback Jacob Cavazos and running back Peyton Knaub.

But Stroman and the Panthers are confident they have a pair of proven offensive playmakers ready to take over in senior quarterback Rodney Garza and senior running back Jesse Hernandez.

Both saw limited action last season but made the most of their chances. Garza threw for 204 yards on 11-of-16 passing in limited game action, while Hernandez ended the year as the team’s third-leading rusher with 470 yards and four touchdowns on 58 carries.

The biggest concern for Weslaco High this season, though, will be the amount of practice time the team will be able to squeeze in before its season debut and how long it will take to return to the field in a season defined by uncertainty.

Weslaco High quarterback Rodney Garza carries the ball during football practice at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

The Panthers pounced at the opportunity to participate in on-campus, socially-distanced summer strength and conditioning workouts in early June, but were only able to fit in two weeks of work together.

“It’s never the same. Working out together isn’t the same as working out on my own. It’s totally different because you don’t have anybody to push you or supervise you, making sure you’re doing it with the right technique and form,” Stroman said. “I asked them what they thought the biggest difference was from last year to this year and they said, ‘Conditioning, Coach. We need to be conditioned.’”

The team was able to resume on-campus preseason morning practices in early October, but matters were complicated further for Weslaco High when news of multiple positive COVID-19 tests within the football program.

The Panthers were forced to call for a two-week program-wide quarantine and temporary stoppage of all football activities less than a week before their season opener, one of two district games the team was forced to postpone.

But for Weslaco High, there seems to be at the end of the tunnel, as the team will play its season opener against the Harlingen South Hawks (1-1, 1-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco.

“The biggest change (from last year to this year with our players) has been their positive attitude and their energy. We’re just happy that these kids are going to get a chance to hopefully play,” Stroman said. “Safety is No. 1. Even some of these NFL teams that have been in the bubble have tested positive (for COVID-19), so nothing is bullet-proof. We just have to make sure we’re doing everything possible to stay safe.”

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch