WESLACO — With precious seconds ticking away, the Weslaco High Panthers were facing a crunch-time dilemma.

With no timeouts remaining and without head coach Roy Stroman due to COVID-19 contact tracing for the second straight week, Weslaco was looking at a fourth down and 15 at the Harlingen High 31-yard line and had to make a snap decision without being able to stop the clock: kick for the tie or gamble for the win.

The Panthers rolled the dice and sent their offense back onto the field, but a pair of Cardinals’ defenders converged to break up what would have been the go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute to play, as Harlingen held on for a narrow 13-10 win over Weslaco in The Monitor’s Game of the Week on Friday night at Bobby Lackey Stadium.

The Cardinals’ victory also capped an undefeated run through divisional play in District 32-6A’s west zone and secured the team a spot in the district’s championship game and the Rio Grande Valley’s first Class 6A playoff berth of the 2020 season.

Weslaco’s Rodney Garza (6) is pressured by Harlingen High defender Isaiah Lizcano (23) during a high school football game at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Weslaco. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com

“Weslaco and Harlingen: it’s an old-school rivalry and hard-knocks kind of stuff,” Harlingen High Cardinals head coach Manny Gomez said. “Hats off to both communities and both teams. They played extremely well and hard. That’s what it’s all about and this is why I do what I do. Don’t get me wrong, we had some opportunities we missed here and there, but that’s football. I’m just glad we came out on top.

“I’m extremely humbled and glad we found a way to get it done tonight.”

The colossal clash between Harlingen High (4-0, 3-0) and Weslaco High (1-1, 1-1) — the third and eighth-ranked teams in the latest RGVSports.com Top 10 Poll, appeared on paper to be a meeting of two of the RGV’s top defenses and the matchup lived up to its billing as one of the Valley’s regular-season high school football game-of-the-year candidates.

Through the first three drives and 6 minutes of game time, the Cardinals and Panthers’ offenses combined for two total yards.

That changed quickly, however, when the Panthers took over for their second drive of the night and senior running back Jesse Hernandez bounced it outside to run 72 yards untouched to the end zone, which put Weslaco on top 7-0 halfway through the opening quarter.

But that was ultimately Weslaco’s only touchdown and the last game-breaking play for either offense the rest of the night, as turnovers and penalties helped the game revert to a defensive stalemate.

Weslaco’s Jesse Hernandez (21) shuffles past Harlingen High defense for big yardage during a high school football game at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Weslaco. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com

Harlingen answered back on a QB keeper inside the red zone, as senior quarterback Joe Zuniga scored his first of two rushing touchdowns on the night for the Cardinals, but a botched extra-point attempt allowed Weslaco to hold onto a slim 7-6 lead going into halftime.

The second and third quarters, meanwhile, were dominated by each side’s defenses.

The Panthers marched inside their opponent’s red zone on three separate occasions during that stretch, and the Harlingen High defense recovered a fumble inside the 10-yard line and forced two turnovers on downs, one after a missed field-goal attempt.

The Weslaco defense, however, shut down the Cardinals’ offense time after time as the game approached the fourth quarter. In total, the Panthers forced a whopping five turnovers defensively, as the versatile senior linebacker duo of Josh Burket and Jesse Perez helped keep the Cardinals off the field in crucial situations.

“We’ve got some young cats back there (on offense) and these are some big lights for them,” Gomez said. “We’ve got a lot of sophomores and it’s a learning curve for them, but I guarantee you tomorrow I’m going to rewind it and rewind it and rewind it until it bothers them. It’s a learning curve, again, and we’re a young team that’s still learning. You can’t win a championship in three weeks; you’ve got to keep grinding and we’ll thank the Lord for the opportunity to play tomorrow or the next week and get better.”

The Panthers were able to extend their lead at the start of the fourth quarter thanks to a 40-yard field goal off the foot of Manor Moran but took one step back for every two steps forward due to a nauseating number of penalty flags down the stretch which negated several big pickups by senior quarterback Rodney Garza through the air and on the ground.

Harlingen High’s Joe Zuniga (4) mishandles the ball on a quarterback sneak against Weslaco’s defense during a high school football game at Bobby Lackey Stadium on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Weslaco. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | dlopez@themonitor.com

The Cardinals, however, responded by driving the length of the field to take a late lead thanks to Zuniga’s second touchdown run with less than 5 minutes to play before the Cards’ secondary came up with the last-second deflection to preserve a narrow victory and punch Harlingen’s ticket back to the Class 6A playoffs.

“I’m glad we got tested because you need to be able to do things like this and win games like this,” Gomez said. “It’s going to prepare us for the playoffs and the bottom line is that we might not be playing our best, but we’re finding a way to get it done. We stress, ‘Find a way to finish,’ and that’s what we did here tonight.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it fully loaded, but for now we’re going to enjoy this win and hope for more of them,” he added. “We’ll get back at it tomorrow with running and getting that lactic acid out, enjoy the film, critique it, learn from it and move on.”

The Harlingen Cardinals will return to action when they host the San Benito Greyhounds in the Battle of the Arroyo at 7 p.m. Friday at Boggus Stadium in Harlingen, while the Weslaco Panthers will get back to work when they host the Donna North Chiefs in their District 32-6A west zone finale at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco.

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch