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FARMINGTON — The Piedra Vista football team had one of its best season in school history last year, going 9-3, winning the District 1-5A title and reaching the 5A state semifinals.

The Panthers return the bulk of their offensive and defensive production from 2015, but a deep run in the state playoffs will be a greater challenge in 2016 with PV making the jump to 6A this season.

“From the get-go, we decided we were going to take the approach that it’s a welcomed challenge,” PV head coach Jared Howell said of the move to 6A. “It’s our chance to elevate our program and step up to a tougher level of play.”

PV will be in District 1-6A this season with Cibola, Volcano Vista, Rio Rancho — the 2014 state champion — and Cleveland — the defending 6A champion and the top-ranked team in Maxpreps’ preseason poll.

One of the focuses for the Panthers in the move to 6A is working and playing harder on every snap to try to offset any disadvantages they have with size or speed.

“We’re going to hop in there, and it’s going to be a dogfight with every team we play against,” senior linebacker Aaron Simpson said. “We might not be the most talented, but we’ll be the toughest kids in 6A.”

The move to 6A won’t change PV’s offensive philosophy, which focuses on dictating the pace of the game with a heavy running attack.

Back to lead the Panther offense will be senior Elijah Gamboa, who was moved from running back to quarterback early in the 2015 season to fill voids left by injury. He finished last season as PV’s leading rusher.

“He became a linchpin in our offense and really made it go. He’ll still be playing quarterback and all the same positions he played last year,” Howell said of Gamboa, who was also a first-team All-State selection at safety last season.

Anchoring the offensive line to open holes for Gamboa and the running game will be Dylan Weaver, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound lineman who has committed to play next year at Texas Tech.

“We’ve been working harder than we ever have,” Weaver said. “Our line is a lot bigger than we were last year and much more experience. All around, we’re a much tighter team than we were last year, and we’re more focused this year.”

The Panthers will boast returning starters in each level of the defense, providing the team with needed experience and leadership during the season.

Simpson and defensive lineman Talon Ball will shore up the front seven, while Gamboa and Christian Chavez will be looked at for leadership in the secondary.

“We’ve got people at every level who played a lot and have significant experience,” Howell said. “And the kids we’ve got who are coming in as starters got a lot of playing time last year, so they’re not brand new, either, and we’re looking for them to establish themselves at their positions.”

PV will open the season against crosstown rival Farmington at 7 p.m. Friday at Hutchison Stadium. Simpson and Weaver said the Panthers’ approach to the game is that it is no different than any other game on the schedule.

“It’s just another game. We play them every year, and we don’t do anything different because it’s Farmington,” Weaver said. “It’s just another game for us.”

Because of the ongoing construction at FHS, a shuttle service will be used to help offset the limited parking space. Buses will transport fans to and from the game with Hermosa Middle School serving as the pick-up and drop-off point. The shuttle service will begin transportation to the game starting at 6:15 p.m. Return trips will be at halftime, the end of the third quarter and at the conclusion of the game.

Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648. 

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