WESLACO — Weslaco High’s Rodney Garza and Jesse Hernandez knew they had a lot to prove when their team eventually returned to the field.
The Panthers’ senior quarterback and running back hardly wasted any time, hitting the ground running in Weslaco’s November season debut.
With the team driving again at the outset of the second quarter, Garza took a shotgun snap and dropped back to pass, hitting a wide-open Hernandez on a screen pass.
Hernandez weaved and pranced his way into the end zone on the 26-yard passing touchdown, the duo’s third consecutive score on the Panthers’ first three offensive possessions, as Weslaco High walloped the Harlingen South Hawks 28-14 in a dominant District 32-6A opener Friday night at Bobby Lackey Stadium.
“It feels good to be back with our brothers. Since freshman year, we’ve been playing together so it’s good to go back into battle for our senior year,” Hernandez said. “Offensively, we were hungry to play because obviously we were delayed, but we were glad to be back. We started with that first play and first drive and ended it with a touchdown.”
Weslaco High was eager to return to competitive football after COVID-19 concerns derailed and interrupted summer strength and conditioning workouts in June and preseason morning practices in October.
Of all 128 Texas high schools who qualified for the University Interscholastic League’s Class 6A playoffs in 2019, the Panthers were the final program to make their return to playing under the Friday night lights in 2020, one night after the crosstown rival Weslaco East Wildcats made their season debut as well.
Garza and Hernandez took full advantage of the opportunity, blitzing the Hawks’ defense out of the gate with a series of lightning-quick scoring drives.
Hernandez got the Panthers on the board first on a 4-yard rushing touchdown on the first offensive possession of the game, while Garza added another 5-yard touchdown scamper on a QB keeper the following drive.
“It feels amazing. We’ve been practicing and working out here and at home for a long time. It just feels good to be out here finally,” Garza said. “We were ready, we were pumped and we were excited. We had a good game plan set up by the coaches. We practiced well all week and we executed the game plan through that first half and we came out victorious.”
Weslaco High’s defense also came ready to play, pitching a defensive shutout in the first half, which allowed the Panthers to carry a 21-0 edge into the locker room at halftime.
The Hawks were unable to advance the ball past midfield during the opening half of play.
“It feels good to have good playmakers on both sides of the ball to piggyback off of when we’re not doing as well,” Hernandez said.
The Panthers’ defense was equally impressive after the break.
Harlingen South added a pair of late passing touchdowns, one with less than a minute to play in the fourth quarter, but ran into trouble trying to sustain drives in critical must-convert, third-down situations.
Weslaco High seniors Josh Burket and Jesse Perez made a case for being the Rio Grande Valley’s most versatile linebacking corps.
Burket shut down the Hawks’ inside rushing game and tallied a few timely sacks late in the game, while Perez played an integral role in the team’s pass defense. Perez even ripped an interception out of an opposing receiver’s hands and returned it for a defensive touchdown before a penalty on the return dragged the line of scrimmage back.
“It feels good having those guys behind us and knowing they always have our backs,” Garza said of the Panthers’ defense. “In the second half, we weren’t executing as well, but those guys stepped up and stopped them when we needed them to.”
Many expected the Panthers to lean on that veteran defense in 2020, but Garza and Hernandez proved why Weslaco should have one of the most feared offenses in a deep District 32-6A this season.
At the start of the second half on the first play of a new drive, Garza bobbled a misplaced snap, frantically scooped up the loose ball and handed it to Hernandez, who sliced through the interior of the Hawks’ defense, found a seam and sprinted down the middle of the field for an 88-yard touchdown run.
“It feels amazing because we’ve been waiting for this. To finally score after executing like that all week as an offense was amazing for us,” Garza said. “We’re thankful for the guys on the line too. They really stepped up and executed. Those guys are always eating and handing out pancakes, even in practice. They always go hard and give it 100% every day. On the field, it just shows how hard they’ve been working.”
“It just felt good to finally be in the end zone and finally be on the field. We’re fortunate that we were able to be on the field, but it felt good,” Hernandez said. “Without the o-line, we wouldn’t be up 28-14, so props to those guys and a big shout out to Jesus Christ for keeping care of us and helping us come out safely with an injury-free game.”
The Weslaco High Panthers (1-0, 1-0) will return to action next week when they host the Harlingen High Cardinals (3-0, 2-0) at 7 p.m. Friday at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco.