Ups and downs defined Paschal football season

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With the Texas high school football playoffs in full swing and 2013 coming to an end, it seems fitting to look back on one of the craziest seasons ever for the Paschal Panthers.

This year, the Panthers recorded their best season in recent memory in 2013, going 5-5 and winning two district games.

But the season wasn’t without its ups and downs.

Coming off a 1-9 season and before that a winless campaign, coach Matt Cook looked for a strong start to the season to fuel a potential turnaround. Since being placed in District 3-5A with the talented Arlington teams, Paschal hadn’t won a district game and no one seemed to expect anything different this year.

Going into the season opener against rival Arlington Heights, it was the team’s perfect chance to begin the season strong and get revenge on a team that had romped them the season previous. Perhaps with a win, the Panthers might even turn some heads.

The story couldn’t have been written any better for Cook and the Panthers, with surprise sophomore quarterback Dylan Thomas leading Paschal to a 42-7 victory. Senior receiver Darrell James summed up the team’s emotions in one sentence.

“I can’t even describe how this feels,” he said.

One game in, Paschal had already matched their win total from the year previous. Two more non-district games remained before the real tests came for the Panthers in district play.

They dismantled Joshua and Dallas Sunset by a combined score of 101-14 and suddenly were the talk of Dallas-Fort Worth high school football. Tony Eierdam, sports editor of the Mineral Wells Index, grew up in Fort Worth and said he hadn’t seen Paschal do so well in a long time.

“They came out of the gate strong,” he said, “and when they had those three wins in a row, I was very impressed.”

The Panthers were 3-0 but needed a strong showing in district play to make a run for the playoffs. The top four teams in each district in Class 5A make the postseason, and only the district record counts towards those standings.

The Panthers’ next game came against Sam Houston, who in recent years was the weakest team from Arlington. If Paschal was to get early momentum for a playoff spot, a win in this game would put them in prime position.

A back-and-forth game and 112 points later, Paschal came out the loser by 10 and fell to 0-1 in district play with even harder opponents upcoming.

Blowouts by Arlington teams Bowie and Martin put the Panthers in a hole at 0-3 in district play and back to .500 on the season going into a matchup against winless Weatherford. This looked like Paschal’s best chance to snap a winless streak in district that dated back to 2009, and sure enough, Paschal won in an afternoon matinee at Farrington Field.

With that milestone crossed off, the Panthers were only two wins away from securing their first winning season in recent memory and putting themselves in a likely playoff spot. However, another blowout loss, this one to Arlington, set Paschal back to the bottom three of an eight-team division.

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. On Wednesday, Oct. 30, district opponent Arlington Martin was forced to forfeit three district games due to an ineligible player. Paschal gained a win and moved into a playoff spot, only needing to win its last two games to secure the berth.

Two days later, on the final play of the game, backup quarterback Gibson Duwe threw a touchdown pass to give Paschal the one point victory over North Crowley and keep the Panthers’ playoff hopes alive and bring their record to 6-3.

The atmosphere around Paschal High was electric, and people around the Metroplex were taking notice of the recent changes of fortune for teams in District 3-5A.

“Martin is generally the best team in that district and for them to be out of a playoff spot caused some incredible parity going down the stretch,” Eierdam said. “Unfortunately for Paschal and Sam Houston, it was all for naught.”

Indeed, less than a week after Arlington Martin forfeited three games due to a district ruling, the University Interscholastic League (UIL) heard the school’s appeal and overturned the ruling, giving them back the three victories.

Even with the miraculous last-second victory days earlier, Paschal was suddenly eliminated from playoff contention and lost the guarantee of a winning season.

Cook had a tough challenge in keeping his team focused for the last game of the season against Arlington Lamar. The top ranked team in the division had no problem with Paschal, beating them 70-21.

When all was said and done, though, the Panthers increased their win total by four and posted a .500 record, their best showing under Cook. They won their first two district games since 2009 and first since joining District 5-3A. James finished the season with over 1300 yards and 14 receiving touchdowns in an impressive senior campaign.

“It was a tough season, good and bad,” James said. “It was great to see the improvement and I think we’ll be even better next year.”

Paschal (2,457 enrollment) will move to a new 6A class beginning in the 2013-2014 season, which includes all high schools with enrollment over 2,100 students. Previously, all schools over 2,090 students were grouped in Class 5A.

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