Panthers battle-tested going back to 5A

Matt Hollinshead,
Piedra Vista quarterback Cameron Swarts drops back in the pocket and fires a pass down the right side against Durango during Friday's scrimmage at Hutchison Stadium. The Panthers open the 2018 season Friday at Los Lunas.

FARMINGTON – Even though it lasted two measly seasons, Piedra Vista reaped the benefits of the Class 6A experience — adamant it did wonders in multiple regards as it returns to Class 5A.

Playing against Rio Rancho, Cleveland, Volcano Vista and Cibola, just to name a few, in and of itself was all new territory.

"We had to climb Mount Everest. We carved our niche out. We belonged. We were relevant in that district," coach Jared Howell said. "We're definitely better overall as a program just because of that experience. We got out of comfort zone. We really had to be good technically and fundamentally just to have a chance."

Opponents were physically stronger, faster and on a different plane fundamentally. It was also new for PV, which featured many players 5-foot-11 or shorter, to withstand foes who stood a solid 6-foot-3 or taller across the aisle. 

Every step, and misstep, mattered. Every possession mattered.

Howell said playing in 6A reinforced how important the little details are.

"A six-inch step here makes all the difference in the world. Where you place your hands, where your eyes are. Every mistake is amplified. If you're off by an inch at (the 6A) level, it might as well be two feet," Howell said.

Even though teams like Rio Rancho and Cleveland eventually pulled away, PV had its moments where it scored on the opening drive or forced foes to punt in an early drive.

It may have only lasted one quarter or one half, but even those sequences were small psychological victories.

And district wins over Volcano Vista and Cibola further aided that spike in confidence.

"It was most definitely a blessing in disguise. We know what the best of the best can do. The game was just so fast at 6A," quarterback Cameron Swarts said. "Our whole team's hungry, and we just want to do some big things."

PV won nine games during its previous 5A stint during the 2015 season.

PV won 10 combined games over the previous two seasons and made the 6A playoffs in 2017, and the Panthers hope it translates to stronger results upon its return to 5A.

Swarts said he hopes PV, which opens the 2018 campaign 6 p.m. Friday at Los Lunas, will be viewed as a legitimate threat on the gridiron statewide after playing in 6A.

"6A's just on a whole other level. We tried to hang with them, and we did everything as hard as we could," Swarts said. "We want to come in and fight."

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