CUERO — Teams that go deep in the playoffs often have to find various ways to win games.
The Navarro Panthers (13-0) showed that on Friday night as they squeezed out a 31-22 win over the Sinton Pirates (7-6) in the third round of the Class 4A-II playoffs.
Much of what Panthers’ fans are used to seeing was in evidence in this game. They rushed for 397 yards and protected the ball—they have no turnovers in any of their three playoff games.
But with the scrappy Pirates not allowing Navarro to score an offensive touchdown in the second half, crucial plays from their defense and special teams helped pull out the victory.
The means for much of that was linebacker Gabriel Means. The senior blocked a punt, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble — and did all that in the second half.
“They got a lot of momentum going and we had to stop it,” Means said. “We knew we had to play solid defense, not give them any breaks, and make some big plays.”
It was also a night of setting records. Their effort on the ground on Friday gives them a school record 5,331 rushing yards on the season, surpassing the mark set by the 2012 Panthers.
Also, Euler Deleon’s 238 yards rushing took him to 2,003 yards on the year. That moved him past the previous single season record held by Austin Randle for his 1,869 yards 16 years ago.
On the career list, Deleon moved past Tanner Law and Ellis Wright to become the fourth leading rusher in Navarro history. He now has run for 3,594 yards.
And Sebastian Sneed hit his seventh field goal of the season, passing the six Travis Korn hit in 2007 for another school record.
The opening possession of the game found the Panthers facing a fourth-and-eight at their own 38-yard line.
That is when punter Momo Sims took the snap and found open field, following a key block from Ben Muniga and racing for a 21-yard gain.
Navarro head coach Rod Blount said running a fake punt if the opening was there had been a “built-in, automatic all year.”
“As soon as I saw the snap, I knew it was there,” he said. “Mo saw it too and made a huge run. It was a big-time play.”
The conversion put the Pirates back on their heels and the Panthers capitalized five plays later when Deleon scored on a 10-yard run.
But the extra point that followed was blocked by Sinton and returned for two points, leaving Navarro with an early 6-2 lead.
Deleon scored twice more in the half on runs on 17 and two yards and ran in the two-point conversion after each to account for all 22 of the Panthers’ first half points.
Meanwhile, Navarro’s defense held the Pirates in check for most of the first half. They stopped one scoring threat on a fourth-and-three at the Panthers’ four-yard line. Later, defensive back Myles McCord picked off a Sinton pass to set up Navarro’s third score.
Holding a 22-2 lead with just over two minutes left in the first half, however, the Panthers gave up a touchdown drive. Sinton got the score when they hit a touchdown pass with 51 second left on a fourth-and-seven at the Navarro 30-yard line.
Blount said the score was “a huge momentum swing that gave them hope and got them back in the ballgame.”
The Panthers took their now reduced 22-8 lead into the second half and forced a punt on Sinton’s first series.
But disaster would soon strike. With a fourth-and-two at their own 14, Blount said the Panthers intended to attempt to draw the Pirates offsides and then punt if they could not. A Pirate defender did jump but was able to get back without making contact. It was enough for the Panthers offense to think they had a free play but the ensuing run came up short of the first down.
Sinton scored just two plays later and added the two-point conversion, cutting the lead to 22-16.
Their momentum would grow after holding the Panthers to a three-and-out on their next series, then quickly driving to the Navarro six-yard line. But before the Pirates could take their first lead of the game, Means stripped the ball from the quarterback and it was recovered by McCord.
The Panthers then put a 12-play drive together but could not finish it as they were stopped on a fourth down at the Sinton 24-yard line.
Navarro’s defense held Sinton to a three-and-out on their next series, thanks in part to a bad snap from the shotgun formation that cost the Pirates 18 yards.
The ensuing punt would be another in the long list of huge plays in this game. Means penetrated the backfield and swatted the ball up in the air.
“We had seen on film that their punt formation was a little tight so we thought we might be able to get one,” Means said. “I rushed in as hard as I could, I dove, and got it with one hand.”
The ball hung in the air for a while before David Reyna pulled it in and ran 10 yards for the touchdown.
But it did not put the game away. Sinton took just 45 seconds to answer that score with a touchdown. That cut the Panthers’ lead to 28-22 with 3:55 left in the game. And the Pirates still had all three of their timeouts.
They then attempted an onside kick but it was snagged nicely by Navarro’s Brody Whitson. With the help of a 28-yard run from Deleon, the Panthers marched deep into Sinton territory while making them use all their timeouts.
With 1:58 left in the game, Navarro faced a fourth-and-six at the Pirates’ ten-yard line and a decision. They could go for the first down and risk Sinton getting the ball back with a chance to drive the field and win the game.
Or they could attempt to put the game out of reach with a field goal. But the wind was blowing strong against them and Sneed’s only kick of the night had been blocked and returned for a score.
Blount opted for the kick and Sneed nailed it, leaving no room for doubt from the time it left his foot.
“They had been playing us well defensively and Sneed has been solid all year long,” Blount said of his decision. “We knew a field goal could pretty much put the game away and if it missed they would still have to drive the length of the field.
“It was a heck of a kick and a great job by Malachai De La Torre (deep snapper), Sam Muniga (holder) and Sneed of executing that.”
A sack by defensive end Brett Butler and then a fumble recovery by Means snuffed out any hope for Sinton to provide a miracle finish.
The Panthers are now headed to the state quarterfinals for the second straight year. There they will meet a familiar foe in district rival Wimberley. The Texans, whom Navarro beat in October, pulled out a 42-41 win over Rockport-Fulton on Friday night.
The game will be played at the Alamodome in San Antonio---the first time the Panthers have ever played there. It will kick off at the unusual time of 3:30 p.m. on Friday.