BY ANDREW MCCULLOCH
SAN ANTONIO — Locked in a tie and looking to add another score to gain some needed separation, Weslaco High senior quarterback Jacob Cavazos took the snap from his center and dropped back to pass.
Cavazos looked toward the sideline for senior wideout Jaden Cavazos near the first-down marker. Cavazos rifled a bullet pass toward the line to gain only to have Lake Travis defensive back Aden Nava jump the route and wrest away a big interception.
Nava danced his way down the sideline and into the end zone for a 32-yard interception return touchdown to put the Cavaliers ahead 10-3. Nava’s pick was the first of four consecutive turnovers by the Panthers’ offense, as Lake Travis used a big turnover margin and a prolifi c offensive attack to top Weslaco High 52-17 in the Class 6A-DI regional semifi nals Friday afternoon at Alamo Stadium.
“You (can’t) give a state championship team like that (four) turnovers. We just couldn’t handle the ball, but we had our chances. We just couldn’t bounce back,” Weslaco High head coach Roy Stroman said. “Hats off to Coach (Hank) Carter and his staff; that’s what Lake Travis does, but we closed the gap. These guys played their hearts out and that’s all that I can ask for.”
The Panthers drew first blood, taking an initial 3-0 lead after a Ramiro Galvez 21-yard field goal. Their defense held the Cavaliers to a field goal on a drive that ended inside the 5-yard line to keep it close, but that’s when the avalanche of turnovers started to snowball on Weslaco.
“We executed at a high level on some possessions,” Jaden Cavazos said. “On other possessions, though, they were on top of their coverages and did their job well. With a team like that, you can’t let them take advantage of a possession.”
The Cavaliers pulled down three consecutive interceptions, including Nava’s first, which was returned for a touchdown. The second was a battedball pick by Lake Travis’ Tag Humble after it was batted at the line by defensive end Trey Sofia, and the third was snagged by defensive back Max Foit in tight coverage and returned deep into Panthers’ territory.
In five total second quarter drives, Weslaco turned the ball over four times and turned the ball over on downs too. Lake Travis capitalized on the mistakes scoring 28 points off turnovers to carry a 31-3 advantage into the break.
“I think we had four turnovers in the first half, and they capitalized on all four of them, so obviously that’s going to kill us. That shot us in the foot,” Jacob Cavazos said. “You can’t have that early on, especially when we allowed 28 points off turnovers. Going into the second half, we knew we just had to limit our mistakes and stop beating ourselves.”
The Panthers played a much-improved brand of offensive football in the second half, but struggled greatly to slow down the Cavaliers’ prolific offense.
Junior quarterback Nate Yarnell’s play peaked in the second half, when he led his offense on several long scoring drives that stretched the length of the field.Yarnell, who was starting in just his sixth game for the Cavaliers, threw for 193 yards and three touchdowns while completing 75% of his passes.
Running back Weston Stephens was even more difficult to slow down, toting the ball 19 times for 172 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. Lake Travis ended the afternoon with 443 total yards to Weslaco’s 341.
“Lake Travis is tough. After watching film, these guys came up with a great game plan and we knew we had to keep them in front of us,” Stroman said. “With the elements, we thought maybe we could get a fumble or an interception. We were trying to eliminate the big play and for the most part, we did.”
The Panthers found the end zone twice during the fourth quarter: the first on a 21-yard quarterback scramble by Cavazos and the second on a 1-yard run up the middle by senior running back Peyton Knaub as time expired.
Knaub rushed for 86 yards on 19 carries, while Cavazos threw for 96 yards on 40.9% passing and ran for a team-high 144 yards on 24 touches.
“We just wanted to finish,” Jacob Cavazos said. “The seniors knew it would be our last one if we let it be, so we laid it all on the line. We didn’t have anything to lose at the end, so we talked about finishing and starting fast and finishing faster. That was our plan today, just give it all we had.”
“I’m just really proud of everyone’s effort,” Jaden Cavazos said. “Everyone fought from the beginning of the game to the end of the game. We performed a little better than previous years, and I’m also proud of that.”
Weslaco High joined Edinburg Vela as the only two Valley schools to advance to the third round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. Their repeat trip to the regional semifinals has given the Panthers statewide notoriety and raised the bar for one of the RGV’s top football programs.
“They’ve set the bar at the third round and now it’s about that plus one. We need that next group to say, ‘We’ve gone there, now we’ve got to go that extra step,’” Stroman said. “We have goals and these guys accomplished a bunch of those goals that we had as a football team. For us, people now know who Weslaco is. They know they are the Panthers and that they are back-to-back third round guys, so from now on this is what’s expected and that’s what we want.”
Lake Travis advances to the regional final with the win, where the team will face the winner of Converse Judson and Laredo United next week.