To say things are different for Pahranagat Valley’s football team than they were a year ago would be an understatement.
The Panthers no longer have last year’s quarterback and head coach, and they no longer will have the nation’s longest winning streak when they open their season at 7 p.m. Friday at Wells.
Spring Mountain ended that streak when it stunned the Panthers in the Class 1A state title game last season, handing every Pahranagat Valley player the first loss of his career.
“It was a tough loss; it was very emotional,” senior Culen Highbe said. “After something like that returning, you just have to come back with confidence.”
The Panthers have plenty of reasons to be confident. Despite losing quarterback Tabor Maxwell (2,136 passing yards, 44 total touchdowns) and Christian Higbee (1,004 rushing yards), Highbe anchors a strong returning unit.
The 6-foot-9-inch tight end caught 29 passes for 531 yards and a team-high 11 touchdown receptions. Also returning is senior linebacker Richard Lewis and his team-leading 66 tackles.
“They were a big part of our team, but we have some kids stepping up and we believe we’ll be able to fill those positions,” Highbe said of the graduated seniors. “On our team I believe everyone can step up and be a leader.”
The Panthers also will be without coach Ken Higbee for the first time in 22 years. Higbee retired after the graduation of his son and running back Christian. The coach came under fire in the offseason when he was served with a 225-count criminal complaint in April that included charges of embezzling money from C.O. Bastian, a school of which he was principal, to the Pahranagat Valley athletic department.
First-year coach Brett Hansen, Higbee’s offensive coordinator, dismissed the idea that the charges were related to Higbee’s retirement and that he had been planning to leave after the 2016 season.
“It probably didn’t end they way they wanted and with that whole deal, but it was his decision to leave with Christian,” Hansen said.
Under Higbee, the Panthers won 11 state championships, including eight in a row from 2008 to 2015. They also set a national eight-man record with 104 consecutive victories spanning from the opening of the 2008 season to last year’s state title game loss.
Hansen said he feels pressure to live up to Higbee’s legacy, but conceded that breaking that record might be out of reach.
“When you have pressure, it means something good has been established,” Hansen said. “We want to keep the tradition of Panther football alive, and if that’s winning 100, that probably won’t happen.”