It’s no secret that the Paschal football Panthers have struggled in recent years.
Few people can remember the last time the Panthers made a run to the playoffs or even had an above .500 season. Since the powerful teams of the 1940’s, ‘50s and ’60s, wins have been increasingly hard to come by. In fact, Paschal has not celebrated a winning season since at least the early 70’s.
Playing in a consistently talented and top-heavy district coupled with a flurry of other challenges have made Paschal a forgettable team on any stage in the last decade. But not since 2007 have the Panthers finished the season without any wins at all, as they did in their 0-10 2011 campaign.
The 2011 season began with a 52-0 thrashing at the hands of Birdville at Farrington Field. The Hawks, who finished the season ranked second in District 5-4A behind powerhouse Aledo, punished the Panthers on the ground for 300 yards rushing.
The outlook appeared bleak after that warm Thursday night in August, but Paschal truly had nowhere to go but up, as the Panthers continued to make improvements throughout the rest of the season.
After a 41-14 loss to Burleson, the Panthers closed out non-district play with a 28-6 loss against Azle. What was noteworthy about this defeat, however. was the Panthers appeared to have found a solution to their ailing running game in the form of sophomore back Justin Woodard.
Woodard burst onto the scene with 91 yards rushing, wearing Jamison Spearman’s number 22 jersey that week. Woodard’s strong running gave the Panthers’ offense a fresh new weapon that they would be able to use well into the future.
The confident Panthers opened up district play with a bang the following week with a road game against Arlington Sam Houston. Paschal jumped out to an early 14-0 lead before the Texans staged a comeback and tied the game at 21. After a hard-fought contest, Paschal lost the game in overtime when quarterback Chris Hanson threw an interception in the back of the end zone.
The Sam Houston game would be the closest Paschal ever came to a victory for the rest of the year. Mistakes and missed opportunities cost them dearly in losses against beatable rivals North Crowley and Weatherford. And the Panthers found themselves incredibly outgunned against their remaining district opponents from Arlington, all of which made the playoffs.
The result was 0-10. But just as every cloud has a silver lining, the Panthers’ winless season was not without bright spots.
Chris Hanson must be considered the team’s most valuable player. He put the team on his back almost every week and finished the season with 1,417 yards passing, 113 yards rushing, and 7 total touchdowns. His rushing stats are not indicative of his superior scrambling ability, as he endured many sacks that hurt his numbers.
Hanson always played under intense pressure and rarely had enough time to throw, which is apparent by his 13 interceptions. But when no one on the offense could find any rhythm, Hanson usually could.
The Panthers will sorely miss him next year.
Some other big losses are Connor Fanning, who was a mainstay on both the offensive and defensive lines, running back Matthew Young, who provided great leadership and power running, and Mike Garcia, who led a secondary that exceeded expectations.
Wide receiver and defensive back Alfredo Retana appears to be the heir apparent for Hanson at quarterback. It remains to be seen how he will make that transition but the offense will certainly have some potent weapons in Woodard and wide receiver Ben Noel, who has proven he can be a go-to receiver.
Safety Jarronald Tate showed sparks of potential in 2011 and it will be interesting to see if he can lead the secondary in 2012 in the same way Garcia did. The Panthers will probably be starting from scratch at most other defensive positions next year.
Paschal needs the most improvement up front on its offensive and defensive lines by far. Both were manhandled at times this season. In particular the offensive line needs work so that the Panthers can have time to utilize their weapons. Some improved run blocking would go a long way for this team next year.
The Panthers also lack depth, which is a strength of the Arlington schools in their district. Until the Panthers can get a larger base of football playing students to draw from, this will continue to be a weakness.
Paschal is a long way away from competing with Arlington High, Martin, Bowie, and Lamar in the upper echelon of District 4-5A, but many believe if anyone can get them there eventually, it’s head coach Matt Cook.
Cook is a student of the game and is highly in tune with the changes need to be made to get Paschal back on a competitive level like it has not seen in decades. At this point, it is just a matter of getting some cooperation.
“There are a lot of things we do well that other teams don’t: We win in the classroom and we’re a big character-building program,” Cook said. “We’ve created a mindset and kind of plateaued the last couple years, but there’s all kinds of variables it takes to make a good program. We have fantastic parents, great backing, and a fantastic principal.”
Cook said that the program needs improved facilities to instill more school pride. He also said they need a larger base of kids from their feeder middle schools who are more knowledgeable of the program and savvy of the kind of football the Panthers play.
Paschal is currently in the process of raising money for a new synthetic grass practice field.
One change that can and must be made right away for next year’s Panthers is that they must be focused and committed to the weight room and film room. An increased devotion to weight training and studying opponents can only benefit a team that is often undersized and under-estimated.
If Cook can get the ball rolling, it might not be long before the Panthers are looking at their first 5-5 season since 1999. Once that happens, the sky could be the limit.
As for next season, the Panthers will likely face the same uphill climb that they’ve endured for the last 40 years.