The Navarro Panthers have one final and completely unexpected obstacle between them and a district championship—the Bandera Bulldogs.
They will try to remove that obstacle on Friday night when they travel to Bandera to close out their 2019 regular season.
Since 2010, the Panthers and Bulldogs have met seven times. Navarro has won all seven handily with an average margin of 34 points.
During that period, the Bulldogs managed to win just 18 games.
But this year they have had the kind of turnaround that might remind long time Panthers fans of their own program’s turnaround in 1998. Under first year coach Joel Fontenot-Amedee, Bandera won their first six games this year and now stands at 8-1. They are tied with Wimberley for second place in the district behind Navarro and will share the district title with the Panthers with a win on Friday.
Navarro head coach Rod Blount said Bandera is playing with great confidence.
“They got a new coach and apparently started believing in him pretty early,” he said. “Then they had some early success and built on that and they have been rolling.”
Before the season started, Blount said Bandera had “as good of skill position kids as anyone in the district” and those players have keyed the reversal in the Bulldogs’ fortunes.
That starts with running back Tommy Cardenas, who lit up Wimberley for 137 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s got great vision,” Blount said of Cardenas. “When he sees the hole, he explodes through it. He’s also running through tackles and getting yards after contact.”
Another is QB Solomon McNeill. Blount said McNeill helped the Bulldogs put up big numbers on teams last year before a broken collar bone ended his season well before Bandera played the Panthers.
Unfortunately, McNeill broke his wrist in Bandera’s district opener against Cuero. He missed two games and then saw limited action against Eastside Memorial last week but did not attempt a pass.
In his absence, running back Gunnar Brown has been moved to quarterback. He has led the offense ably, rushing for 100 yards against Wimberley.
Blount says the Bulldogs have been a stronger running team, rushing on about 75% of their plays. That could present problems for the Panthers, who have given up more than 400 yards on the ground in their last two games combined.
Bandera’s offensive line has improved as the year has gone on, according to Blount. He said they are a big part of the reason the Bulldogs have been a surprise this year because “they’re playing really well.”
Defensively, Blount said Bandera is “a really scrappy team.”
“They’re playing with a lot of passion and lot of effort,” he said. “A lot of guys get to the football each time. They make it hard to put drives together.”
He said Brown at linebacker is “by far their leading tackler” and that Cardenas at safety “cleans up anything that gets by” Brown and the linebackers.
While Wimberley was able to carve up the Bandera secondary in the Texans’ 56-28 win, Blount said their defense has been much tougher to run the ball against.
Blount knows it will be an emotional game for the Bulldogs at their home stadium. But he believes his Panthers, who not only can win the district but can complete the regular season with a perfect record for just the third time, will be ready to match their intensity.
“Bandera hasn’t played for a district championship in quite a while,” he said. “I expect it to be a loud atmosphere.
“But we like that. We know it is what we’ll see in the playoffs. I think it will be a great game to get us ready.”
Both teams have already qualified for the playoffs but the game will go a long way in determining their seeding. If Navarro wins, they will be the district’s first seed. If Bandera beats Navarro by less than 18 points while Wimberley defeats Cuero, the Panthers will still go in as the top seed. If Bandera wins by more than 18 points or if they win by any margin while Cuero upsets Wimberley, Bandera will be the number one seed and the Panthers will slip to second.
Kickoff on Friday is set for 7:30 p.m.
Scot Kibbe is a regular contributoer to the Seguin Gazette. He has covered Navarro football for 28 years.
PANTHER NOTES: Last week’s win put Navarro’s all-time record over .500 for the first time since their second season of play in 1972. Navarro is now 253-252-8 since the program started 48 years ago.
If the Panthers can gain more than 351 yards the ground against Bandera, they will set the school record for rushing yards in a regular season. The current mark of 3,812 yards is held by the 2012 team.
With Matador Stadium closing this year, it is noteworthy that Navarro fans also have memories from the old venue. The Panthers participated in three playoff games at Matador Stadium—a 2003 loss to Karnes City, a 2004 win over Stockdale, and a victory over Wharton in 2012.