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FARMINGTON – Piedra Vista was initially apprehensive about facing physically stronger and faster foes making the jump from 5A to 6A in 2016, but they soon realized they could go head-to-head with those squads.

“They’re not as scary as I always thought they would be. Yes, they’re still big guys. But I feel like if we punch them in the mouth first, we’ll be able to beat them,” senior defensive end Talon Ball said. “Everyone had doubts… but we always said, ‘believe in the underdog.’”

The Panthers now have a better grasp of what it’s like to face that tougher competition, including district rivals Rio Rancho and Cleveland, and they hope that familiarity will help them in 2017.

“(The 6A teams are) definitely faster and have lots more numbers, more people to choose from,” junior running back McKay Cook said. “I feel like we’ll be more comfortable this year, and we’ll just know what we’re going up against.”

In 2016, Piedra Vista won its first five games but then lost its final five.

Many of PV’s players are two-way players, but they dealt talented individual opponents who took home first-team all-state honors in 2016.

Such names included Rio Rancho running back Josh Foley, Volcano Vista wide receiver/kick returner David Cormier, Rio Rancho defensive tackles Kevin McCracken and Keshawn Banks and Cleveland tight end Adam Cook.

PV (5-5 last year, 0-4 in District 1-6A) had its brighter moments, though.

Their lone 6A win came against West Mesa, and they gave their district opponents some trouble early on in games.

“We don’t have killer speed like some people, but we learned how to run down the line and go in an angled pursuit,” Ball said.

PV is trying to get even stronger and faster, all while fine-tuning things like foot work and taking care of the football against opponents.

Ball said PV’s working on reaching the point where they can shake off the underdog status and instead become legitimate among 6A teams.

Senior middle linebacker Logan Cooper is also confident PV can take that next step in 2017. He’s adamant PV could’ve beaten Volcano Vista had the Panthers’ stamina lasted longer. PV lost that game 56-21, but Cooper is far from discouraged about that outcome.

“Those games could’ve been way closer than we made them. If you’re a disciplined, solid football team, it just comes down to a few plays a game that can change it either way,” Cooper said. “Our guys are adjusted to (6A competition) now. It’s not such a shock.”

Piedra Vista opens the new season against cross-town rival Farmington 7 p.m. Friday at Hutchison Stadium.

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.

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