WESLACO — When the Weslaco High Panthers met the Donna North Chiefs on the football field Thursday night, few expected the explosive start that kicked off the District 32-6A west zone regular-season finale for both sides. 

Weslaco won the coin toss and elected to receive, a decision that was vindicated when senior running back Jesse Hernandez burst through a seam on the first play from scrimmage for a 50-yard gain.

Hernandez scored on a 13-yard touchdown run a few plays later to give the Panthers a quick lead, but the Chiefs answered right back. Junior quarterback Robert Gomez uncorked a bomb of a pass over the top of the Panther defense to senior wideout Aiden Gomez, his older brother, in stride for a 48-yard touchdown pass that silenced the crowd at Bobby Lackey Stadium.

Weslaco got the ball back around midfield and determined to strike back, Panthers’ senior quarterback Rodney Garza used a free play to hit senior receiver Joe Maldonado in the front-right corner of the end zone from the Weslaco ISD logo at midfield.

Garza, Hernandez and a fine-tuned Weslaco offense kept rolling, though, to top a feisty Donna North squad 59-32 in a shootout Thursday night in Weslaco.

“There are some things we need to fix, but I think in the first half our ones went in there and did what we had to do,” said Weslaco High head football coach Roy Stroman, who was back on the sidelines for the first time this season after COVID-19 contact tracing prevented him from coaching in the Panthers’ first two games.

“We scored when we needed to score. We threw some long passes and they did a good job. … We knew these guys were going to bounce back and I’m very pleased with what we saw from our offense today.”

The Weslaco looked a well-oiled machine out of the gate Friday night, scoring on its first possession of the game for the third time in three games so far this year.

The Panthers led 14-6 at the end of the first quarter after a Donna North missed extra point and Garza’s first passing touchdown of the night.

Weslaco added a 24-yard field goal on the first play of the second and used that to seize momentum before heading into the half.

“They were clicking at the right time, whether it was throwing the ball or running with it. Jesse and Rodney had good games controlling the offense, the offensive line opened up some big holes and our receivers did a good job of catching the ball and making moves. For a lot of them, it’s about running a route to open up the other guy and I thought we did that well,” Stroman said.

“Field position and momentum are huge. It starts with the kickoff return and then you have to build toward that momentum and field position to get that short field and score. It starts with special teams and then the offense.”

Garza connected again on a long passing touchdown to Maldonado, this one from 48 yards out. Meanwhile, the Panthers also added touchdown runs of 13 yards from Hernandez, his second of the game, and another from a 46-yard rush by running back Marcus Saenz.

The early scoring onslaught helped Weslaco jump out to a 45-6 halftime edge, while Garza and Hernandez headed to the bench with about 3 minutes to play in the first half.

Weslaco High’s backup quarterbacks kept the offensive show going, as sophomore signal-caller Ethan Gallegos ran in the first score of the second half on a 38-yard QB scramble.

But despite the lead appearing out of reach, the Chiefs offense fought on and played admirably down the stretch, stunning a stingy Weslaco defense with one long pass after another.

The Gomez brothers connected on three long bombs from 30, 46 and 48 yards out and didn’t enter their opponent’s red zone until late in the third quarter. That’s when Chiefs’ quarterback Aiden Gomez went down with a lower leg injury and had to exit the contest.

In stepped senior receiver Rigo Rodriguez, one of Donna North’s star receivers, who ran for two more Chief touchdowns after filling in behind center.

By the end of the night, Donna North’s explosive offense had scored five touchdowns against the Weslaco High defense, which had previously surrendered a combined four touchdowns all season.

“Coach (Juan) Cuevas and his staff are doing a good job over there at Donna North and they have some good players over there,” Stroman said. “He’s got a good core of coaches that are going to buy into his system. He’s a heck of a coach and he’s doing good things with that program. Those kids played hard and they didn’t quit. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for: to bring the energy, bring the passion and never quit. Those guys played hard. I have to tip my cap to them.”

The loss concludes Donna North’s season at 0-4 but marks a significant turnaround and an elevation in competition at one of the Rio Grande Valley’s newest high schools.

For the Panthers, however, the victory gives them home-field advantage for District 32-6A’s zone play-in weekend, which will determine who advances to the Class 6A bi-district playoffs.

In a game that was already on the schedule, Weslaco High and Los Fresnos will meet Friday at 1 p.m. at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco, a full week before other scheduled zone play-in games and district title games are scheduled to be played throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

The Falcons and Panthers met last year in the 6A bi-district playoffs in a contest that Weslaco High won 35-28 at home.

“We’ve got to fix our mistakes and fix us first. This was only our third game,” Stroman said. “Since we were in that COVID protocol, we’re just getting going. Last time I think we won by seven points and it was a close game. They run a really good offense over there (at Los Fresnos) which is something we’re not used to seeing and it’s something a little bit different.

“We’re going to have our kids ready. It’s going to be a good game and it’s going to be at home. We’ve got a good community here and good fans, but we’re excited and we’ll be ready.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch