WESLACO — On the eve of the 2020 high school football season, many throughout the Rio Grande Valley figured Weslaco High was in for a shakeup.

The Panthers, who battled their way to the Class 6A DI regional semifinals in back-to-back seasons, had earned a reputation for owning one of the RGV’s most high-powered and balanced offensive attacks.

Weslaco graduated former quarterback Jacob Cavazos and running back Peyton Knaub, two 2019 All-Area picks by The Monitor, and looked to be preparing for a year in which the program’s veteran defense was expected to lead the way back to the postseason.

“We had to replace 11 defensive guys last season but they had to play 13 games last year, so that’s really going to help us,” Weslaco High head football coach Roy Stroman said. “They know it takes confidence and hard work to get us back there.”

While the Weslaco High defense pitched a first-half shutout in its District 32-6A debut Friday against Harlingen South, it was the Panthers’ dynamic new-look offense that stole the headlines and authored the story of a dominant season-opening win thanks in large part to the play of a new senior duo: quarterback Rodney Garza and Jesse Hernandez.

Weslaco High quarterback Rodney Garza (6) passes the ball against Harlingen South in a District 32-6A game at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“It’s their senior year, so they know what they’re going to have to sacrifice,” Stroman said. “They know expectations are high, but we tell these guys, ‘Last year’s team is last year’s team. Our main focus is to be the best you.’

“These guys know they have some big shoes to fill, but they know tradition never graduates in Weslaco.”

Garza and Hernandez, a pair of teammates with virtually unparalleled chemistry cultivated since their early days at Weslaco High, earned the starting jobs at quarterback and running back, respectively, entering their senior seasons after solid production in spot situations as juniors in 2019.

The duo had to prepare for the upcoming season with the rest of the Panthers’ offense mostly apart, however, after COVID-19 concerns caused Weslaco ISD to pump the brakes on summer strength and conditioning workouts in June, delayed the start of practices and eventually resulted in the postponement of Weslaco High’s first two games of the season.

That gave the team less than a week of practice time together after a two-week, program-wide quarantine for its season opener against the Hawks.

Weslaco High running back Jesse Hernandez (21) carries the ball against Harlingen South in a District 32-6A game at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

But against Harlingen South, in what was originally their third scheduled regular-season game of the year, Garza and Hernandez led a hungry Weslaco High offense determined to show that it has what it takes to vie for a district championship in a deep District 32-6A.

“We’ve been practicing here and working out at home for a long time now,” Garza said. “It just feels good to be back out here finally.”

“It feels good to be back with our brothers,” Hernandez said. “Since freshman year we’ve been playing together, so it feels good to be back and back into battle together for our senior year.”

The Panthers’ offense scored touchdowns the first three times it touched the football on Friday night, beginning with back-to-back rushing touchdowns by Hernandez and Garza and ending in a 30-yard screen pass touchdown from Garza to Hernandez, the team’s longest pass completion of the night.

Hernandez also scored Weslaco High’s final touchdown of the night on an 88-yard run, the longest play of the night for either team, and was named The Monitor’s Player of the Week for his efforts.

“We were hungry to play because obviously we were delayed, but we were glad to be back so we started on the first play determined and hungry and ended up walking away with the W,” Hernandez said.

Weslaco High’s Jesse Hernandez (21) carries the ball against Harlingen South in a District 32-6A game at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

In total, Garza and Hernandez accounted for an astounding 362 yards of total offense and four touchdowns on the night in a statement win for the Panthers over the Hawks.

“We were pumped, we were ready and we were excited,” Garza said. “We had a good game plan set up by the coaches and we practiced well all week. We executed early on in the first half, which helped us come out victorious.”

Garza, Hernandez and the Panthers’ offense will be in for its biggest test of the 2020 season so far when they collide with the Harlingen High Cardinals and one of the Rio Grande Valley’s top defensive units.

The Cardinals’ defense has smothered every opposing offense it faced in the opening month of the season, blanking rival Harlingen South in the Bird Bowl and shutting down McAllen Memorial and Donna North too.

Harlingen has outscored its opponents 110-12 and is allowing 153.7 yards per game through its opening three games, presenting a staunch test for the Weslaco High offense led by Garza and Hernandez with the winner seizing the inside track at securing a spot in the 32-6A district championship game.

Weslaco High quarterback Rodney Garza (6) passes the ball against Harlingen South in a District 32-6A game at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“It felt good to be back on the field and we’re fortunate to be on the field,” Hernandez said. “We need to minimize some of those penalties and come out next week with a better mentality.”

“We’ve just got to come to work every day,” Garza said. “This is our job every day. We’ve got to come out here 24/7 ready to play. The coaches will set a plan for us and we’ve just got to execute come Friday night.”

The Weslaco High Panthers (1-0, 1-0) will face off against the Harlingen High Cardinals (3-0, 2-0) in The Monitor’s Game of the Week at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco.

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch