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WESLACO — Prior to Weslaco High’s first practice of the 2023 season, head coach Roy Stroman showcased last year’s bi-district trophy to his team. The gold ball served as a reminder of what last year’s team accomplished and the bar set for the new campaign. Last year’s success has this year’s Panthers locked and loaded to raise the bar once again, opening the season as tied for No. 9 in the Top 10 poll.

“We have high expectations for this team,” Weslaco High defensive lineman Pablo Cadena said. “We’ve been ranked pretty low or not ranked at all these past couple of years since we hadn’t made a playoff run. We’ve been underrated, but now we’re ready to prove people wrong.”

This year’s Panthers squad brings a mix of experience and youth on both sides of the ball, returning seven total starters from last year. Senior Andres Sepulveda is back to pilot the offense after a breakout junior year. The Panthers’ signal caller was among RGV’s best last season, throwing for 1,856 yards and 20 touchdowns, both which ranked in the top 5 in the Valley. He’ll have a solid offensive line to work behind, with the Panthers returning three of five starters in the trenches.

Weslaco High quarterback Andres Sepulveda prepares to throw a pass during a District 32-6A contest against Los Fresnos on Oct. 14, 2022 at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | The Monitor)

“Andres has grown from when we had him as a freshman to now,” Stroman said. “He has really taken on that leadership role, which is what we need from our quarterback. Then our offensive line will be our strength. Those guys are going to be there to protect and create to open up big holes for our backs.”

One of the biggest questions on offense will be Weslaco High’s receiving corp, having graduated its top five options. The Panthers’ new wideout group showcased their ability to answer that question during 7-on-7 season, helping Weslaco High get to the state tournament with big performances during the Snake Pit Classic.

“I don’t think our group should be a question mark,” Weslaco High receiver Jayden Garcia said. “When we played at 7-on-7, all our receivers balled out. We’ve also been hitting the field randomly to run routes and getting that work in together. We just want to be different than the receivers we’ve had.”

On defense, the Panthers have their work cut out for them in the trenches, with Stroman describing the group as the deepest he’s had in recent memory. Among that group are impact players Daryn Hanks and Matthew Garza, who combined for eight sacks last year. Add in towering defensive tackles Pablo Cadena and Fabian Martinez, both who stand over 6 feet, and the Panthers could field one of the Valley’s most dominant front four.

Weslaco High defensive lineman Fabian Martinez runs through drills during practice on Aug. 8 at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | The Monitor)

“Everybody here is 6 feet tall or more,” Martinez said. “I think we’re going to have one of the biggest D-lines in the Valley. I think just coming out of the tunnel we’re going to intimidate everybody. I think other teams are going to be scared. But we don’t just look big, we’ve put in the work. Every morning we come out here and do extra to show out this season what we can do.”

The secondary brings back a pair of veterans in seniors Noah Cazares and Devin Silva, both retaining their starting roles from last year. The duo combined for 104 total tackles last year, with Silva adding two picks.

Silva will be tasked with stepping into a more prominent leadership role this season, taking the torch from his recently graduated brother, Gavin, who led the team in interceptions with six last year.

“This year I have big shoes to fill on defense knowing my brother left,” Silva said. “I got to go out there and prove not that I’m better, but that I can be as good as him. Hopefully, we can have the same outcome as last year and we can show what this Weslaco defense is all about.”

The Panthers open the regular season at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, against Mercedes at Tiger Stadium in Mercedes. They’ll follow it up with non-district contests against Harlingen South, Edinburg High, Sharyland High and Laredo United South before a district-wide bye week.

Following their bye week, the Panthers kick of District 32-6A play against a pair of playoff teams in Harlingen High (Oct. 6) and Los Fresnos (Oct. 13), followed by back-to-back home games against Brownsville Hanna (Oct. 20) and Brownsville Hanna (Oct. 27). They’ll close out the regulars season on the road against San Benito on Nov. 3.