MISSION — It is rare for a group of seniors to lead the dawn of a new era, but that is what happened this year at Weslaco High.
After the Panthers went 3-6 last year, in coach Michael Salinas’ first year, many wondered what would become of the storied Panthers program.
“Coming into the season, not a lot of people thought we had it in us,” Weslaco senior defensive lineman Seth Sanchez said. “We came off a tough season. We just bought into coach. And he guided the ship, and guided it well. We just took his advice, and then we took off.”
The Panthers charged into the third round of the UIL Class 6A playoffs, beating rival Weslaco East along the way.
While the clicking of the offense was what sparked the Panthers, the steadiness of the defense was what allowed the offense to flourish.
The Panthers’ defense was quick enough to run when Weslaco was in a shootout, and physical enough to grind it out in the ground-and-pound wins as well.
Sanchez was always at the center of the defensive attack, and has been named The Monitor’s Defensive Player of the Year. He was a nightmare for opposing passers, leading the team with eight sacks. He was also fourth on the team with 52 tackles. He will be the first to tell you, however, it wasn’t just him.
“We grew up together,” Sanchez said, referring to many of his defensive teammates. “We balled out in a way that we said we wanted to when we were kids.”
Seniors like Jacob Balli, Jaythan Gonzalez, Roy Trevino, Benito Juarez, Marco Noriega, Sam Perez and Jesse Ramos all dreamed of playing in the Panthers’ purple together at Bobby Lackey Stadium.
This year was the culmination of all of their hard work and sacrifices to achieve those dreams. And it was almost better than they even imagined.
“We left the message that we are back,” Sanchez said. “Weslaco hadn’t made the playoffs in two years. We came back and made it to the third round. So, we just set a new standard for the school. We brought the city back. We got everyone to come out and watch. We are an up-and-coming team. Coach Salinas has a new tradition and everyone is buying into it.”
While the seniors may be leaving, that message was heard loud and clear by the underclassmen, who will lead the defense next year, and for the years to come.
“The defense looks great,” Sanchez said. “They have a bright future. The underclassmen have big shoes to fill, but I know they will fill them well. They match our defensive skills very well. This upcoming year, they will be a defense to look out for. They are not quite as big, but they have the speed, and they will get the job done. They will come in as a unit. You will not see people missing tackles, because they will tackle as a unit.”
For Sanchez, watching Noriega, who he described as his “brother,” battle through injury after injury this year was painful. But when the biggest moments came, Sanchez knew he could rely on his brother to give it everything he had.
“We have been playing together for four years,” Sanchez said. “I knew every time he was behind me, I didn’t have to worry about anything. He was there, and he got my back.
Coming out of the playoffs with Laredo United and Lake Travis, it was big knowing he was right beside me, when we walked up as captains. He was there, and it felt great knowing that someone who knew me so well was right behind me.”
With the all-time series between Weslaco High and Weslaco East — otherwise known as the Tinaco Bowl — tied at three games each, this year’s version felt like the most important one yet.
East has been a powerhouse over recent years. It was Weslaco high’s chance to prove they were back, and they did, winning the game 23-21.
“The atmosphere walking into the stadium was big,” Sanchez recalled. “Tinaco Bowl No. 7. It was just big. We were tied. We knew someone had to come away with the victory.
“Throughout the game, it was tough. East has a good offense and defense. We were just battling. It came down to the wire, and our kicker George (Martinez) just came up clutch with that field goal. After it was a great feeling, knowing we haven’t beat them in a while, and knowing we are back.”
No one questioned the Panthers after that.
With Salinas firmly in charge and the team fully behind him, the Panthers appear poised to take over District 31-6A.
While the defense is losing a lot this year, the offense gets back so many pivotal juniors, that it may not matter what type of defense they play next year.
Jacob Cavazos proved to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Valley, setting him up for a monster senior year. With skill position players like Jaden Cavazos, Peyton Knaub, Devin Hanks and K-Jay Jones all coming back as well, Jacob Cavazos will have every tool he could need at his disposal.
“Coach Salinas brought a new era,” Sanchez said. “We set the standard already. These underclassmen are going to step up to these standards. We know that coach Salinas will coach these guys up, to step up to the standard we have set, and bring more gold balls back to the city of Weslaco.”
The Monitor’s All-Area Superlatives
Thursday: Co-Newcomers of the Year
Ivan Mendoza, Jaime “Mito” Perez Jr., Edinburg Vela
Friday: Defensive Player
Seth Sanchez, Weslaco High
Saturday: Offensive Player of the Year
Sunday: Player of the Year; Coach of the Year