Weslaco high linebacker Josh Burket waits for the snap of the ball football during practice at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

WESLACO — Weslaco High waited longer to kick off this season than any of the 128 Class 6A teams that made the Texas high school football playoffs last year.

The Panthers, who like many teams didn’t have spring ball, had to put in most of their offseason work alone at home. Weslaco’s on-campus summer strength and conditioning workouts were canceled as a precautionary measure after less than two weeks together.

That drove senior linebacker Josh Burket and many of his varsity teammates to embrace a new level of personal accountability as they prepared to launch another deep postseason in the blistering South Texas summer heat. Now, it’s all starting to pay off for the Panthers.

“Our growth as a team has improved tremendously due to COVID. My guys and I would workout day in and day out together during the pandemic,” Burket said. “On top of all that, we’ve all been playing together since middle school. Our chemistry just keeps on getting better every time we step on that field.”

The Panthers had to replace several offensive starters heading into the 2020 campaign, which allowed the team’s nine returning defensive starters to address their techniques and flaws individually.

All that alone time during the summer months and in the lead up to the season, when Weslaco was forced into a two-week program quarantine and rescheduled its first two District 32-6A west zone games of the year in October.

“I do believe us going into this season we were already confident in ourselves because of what we went through last season, with us being a young defense,” Burket said. “Because of that, I do feel like we were more focused on getting prepared and ready to play before the season.”

Since Weslaco’s season-opener against Harlingen South, however, the team has rolled to a 3-1 start and nearly a zone championship thanks in large part to the balance and strength of the team’s defense, which is led by a pair of do-it-all linebackers in Burket and fellow senior Jesse Perez.

Weslaco high linebacker Jesse Perez blocks during football practice at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“It felt great to finally be back out there with my team. We had a good game plan going in and we were all on the same page,” Burket said. “I think the difference this year is we are comfortable where we are at because we played together last year.”

Burket and Perez are like a pair of Swiss army knives in the middle of the Panthers’ defense, which leads all 32-6A teams in average yards allowed (202.0).

Weslaco’s senior linebacker duo is big enough to shift to defensive end and rush the passer while athletic and quick enough to also drop back in pass coverage when needed. Burket and Perez have combined for 44 tackles, four hurries and are responsible for three of the team’s combined seven fumble recoveries and interceptions.

The Panthers’ defense, though, has also gotten consistent production defensively from senior defensive end Alexis Muñoz, one of the Rio Grande Valley’s most disruptive pass rushers, and senior defensive back Kayleb Gomez, who has been one of the area’s best one-on-one pass defenders this season.

“I think that is fair to describe us (like) that,” Burket said. “Our main strength is our speed and we built our defense on that.”

Weslaco hasn’t allowed more than 18 points in a game all season, but neither has the Edinburg Vela team it will face in its biggest test so far.

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

The Panthers and SaberCats will both be looking to make their third consecutive trip to the third round of the postseason when they meet in the bi-district round of the Class 6A Division II playoffs and The Monitor’s Game of the Week at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Edinburg.

Weslaco topped Vela on the road in a District 31-6A shootout during the 2019 season, although this year’s matchup should take a decidedly more defensive tone.

Burket and the Panthers, however, are ready for their bi-district battle and a chance to prove themselves as one of the RGV’s top defenses.

“I extremely appreciate the opportunity to play the game that I love,” Burket said. “The setbacks hurt not knowing if we were going to come back to a season or not bothered a lot of us. I feel now when we go on the field we always treat it as our last because we truly don’t know.”

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch