A 2-yard touchdown pass kept Palo Verde from playing for the Class 4A state football championship last season.
The Panthers, though, aren’t dwelling on the past. They’re using it as motivation for an even better season this year.
Palo Verde returns 17 lettermen from a team that finished 12-1 last season, losing in the Sunset Region final to Bishop Gorman 24-20 when the Gaels scored with 23 seconds left. Gorman’s winning score came on the short pass.
“All during the offseason, the kids had a bad taste in their mouths,” 13th-year coach Darwin Rost said. “They worked really hard in the weight room, and it has shown. I knew our speed was going to be good, but the kids just look really quick.”
The Panthers are loaded at the offensive skill positions. A team that lives by running over, through and past opponents has almost more weapons than it can use.
Chaz Thomas returns at running back and says he’s healthy for his senior season after playing through a torn hamstring and torn labrum last season. Thomas ran for 1,053 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“I’m 100 percent,” Thomas said. “We know we don’t want to go through again what we went through at the end of last season.”
Sidney Hodge, another senior running back, rushed for 945 yards and 10 scores last year. Senior fullback Tyrone Blake had 902 yards and 12 TDs. Torin Harris rushed for nearly 10 yards per attempt and scored three TDs.
That quartet had a combined 3,132 yards and 43 touchdowns on the ground. And that’s not all.
“We’ve had some kids come up off our junior varsity team from last year, and they’re looking explosive along with those older kids,” Rost said. “Our job as coaches is we have to make sure we stay two-deep all year long.”
The line is inexperienced, though, and could be Palo Verde’s only weakness.
“They’re going to have to get experience fast,” Rost said.
Defensively, all but one of the Panthers’ linebackers and secondary returns, led by Harris, who has orally committed to Southern California.
“We feel like we can be another good defensive team this year,” Harris said. “We have a lot of experience in our defensive backs and linebackers. We just have to pick it back up.”
Senior Alex Bonczyk returns at safety.
Much like the offensive line, Palo Verde’s defensive front is untested. But the team’s speed can create havoc for opponents.
“We love to use our quickness,” Rost said.
To a man, Panthers players and coaches say they’re focused on only the next game on the schedule.
On paper, a Palo Verde-Gorman rematch in the Sunset final is a definite possibility.
“When you go 12-1 and have a lot of kids coming back, sometimes they look at the end of the tunnel,” Rost said. “It’s a long way to that light right now.
“When you’ve played in that Thanksgiving game six years in a row, you definitely have a bull’s-eye on your back. Everybody will bring their ‘A’ game against us.”