On Monday morning when the first bell rang at Jal high school, it wasn’t to start the new school year. That bell was signaling the return of the Panthers football team to Panther Stadium. The Panthers are coming off a 5-6, 2-1 season where they finished in seventh place and hosted a first round playoff game in Class 2A.
This season the Panthers will look to continue their upward trend of improving every year under head coach Caleb Aldridge. For him, hosting a first round playoff game was a sign of the huge success the program has been making.
“It was a big next step for the program,” Aldridge said. “It had been six or seven years since they had hosted one.
“We are kind of back on the upswing, we won district the year before, and last year we played for a district championship. Then get a home playoff game, win that game, and be one of the last eight teams playing in a class that many picked us to finish in last. It was a big step forward for us to build on.”
The Panthers’ defense was the strength of the team and kept them in games when the offense struggled last year. The team hung its hat on the defense and in many games they would win or lose thanks to it. The defensive performances came from the starters having pride on that end and having an attitude to match. In plenty of games the Panthers defense allowed them to stay close and either lose close or steal a win.
The offense struggled early last year, resulting in Aldridge spending many hours of his practice working on the team’s red zone performance. It seemed like the Panthers could only score on the defensive end, but by the end of the season and going into the playoffs the offense began to show signs of improvement. For the Jal head coach that was important to see. It led to a three-game winning streak after the team started the season 1-2.
The offense and defense had two important players in Gavin Trevino and Damien Soto.
Trevino was the focal point of the offense rushing for 1935 yards and scoring 28 touchdowns. Soto was an important part of the defense leading the team with five sacks and 99 sacks with 15 for loss of yards. The Jal graduates played on both ends and were leaned on heavily for their experience and leadership. Aldridge has preached to his team all summer that he is not asking one or two players to step in and produce the numbers Trevino and Soto.
“We are asking the team as a whole to make up for that,” he said. “We are not asking any one or two guys to step in and make up for what we lost. We are asking the team as a whole to make up on both sides.”
He has emphasized that if groups can produce then the team will be able to find success. He has told his players if they can work together and produce, then everything else will take care of itself. The Panthers will be looking to expand this season instead of relying on one or two players. By expanding the offense and defense will be less predictable and put the opponents in positions where it will have to gamble.
On offense, the Panthers will see the return of quarterback Junior Ibarra, who has been the starter the last two seasons. Aldridge will look to Ibarra to lead the offense as he is the one consistent piece the team will work around his play calling ability.
The Panthers will begin the seasons with a three-game home stand. They will open against Texico On August 23, face the Hobbs junior varsity team on August 29, and end against Capitan on September 6. Aldridge and his team want to come out with a 2-1 or 3-0 record. They know that it is important to get the wins at home, especially with them playing on the road the next for games.
“Its really big to get those wins in front of our home crowd and home turf,” Aldridge said.
With release of the schedule the Panthers are looking forward to a few games this upcoming season. The team has marked its opener against Texico on August 23 looking to get a win against a team they felt they should have beaten last year. The road game to Estancia on September 20 is one where the Panthers can face a team that last season finished in top four of the state. Then finally the rivalry game against rivals Eunice on October 11, knowing it will be the start of district giving the game more importance.