The Friday night heavyweight district 5-3A (I) game between the (7-2, 3-1) Van Alstyne Panthers and the (6-3 , 3-1) Pottsboro Cardinals was billed to be a grind of a game — a close matchup of two playoff-caliber, well-coached teams going head to head under the lights. Pottsboro was fighting to keep sole possession of second place in the district, while Van Alstyne had other plans. The game to follow the hype would not disappoint, as Van Alstyne claimed their first victory, 28-20, over the Cardinals since 1989.

A tale of two high-powered rushing offenses ensured, with the Panthers averaging 216 yards per game and the Cardinals averaging 241 yards per game and a combined 50 rushing touchdowns. This meant a difficult task for both defenses, who needed to stop two mobile quarterbacks and two talented running backs. It became evident that the defenses would be working over time trying to stuff runs and keep the yardage minimal.

The Cardinals quarterback Hunter Watson got the game rolling with a punishing ground game against the Van Alstyne defense. with 6 carries and a total of 36 rushing yards on the drive, Watson finished off the impressive start with a 3-yard run up the gut on the goal line to give Pottsboro an early 6-0 lead. A kick by senior kicker Dane Margburger capped off the Cardinals opener giving them a 7-0 lead.

Van Alstyne was stymied by the Cardinals defense on their first possession, getting held to only 10 yards of offense on 7 plays, as the Panthers were forced to punt on their opening drive. They would get a lucky break, however, after Freshman Braden Plyler muffed the Austin Moore punt and the Panthers reclaimed possession on the Cardinals 18-yard line. After two failed plays to start the second drive, quarterback Rhett Gallagher found his man with a complete pass in the end zone to Drelin Davis. With a successful two-point conversion, the Panthers took the lead, 8-7, to end the first quarter.

The second quarter showed more of the same, as Watson churned through the Panther defense for 41 rushing yards and a touchdown, and another good kick by Margburger put the Cardinals up, 14-8, to open up the quarter.

A beautiful kick return for 65-yards by Moore set up the Panthers on the Pottsboro 29-yard line, marking another big play for Van Alstyne. A completed 16-yard pass from Gallagher to Austin Moore gave Van Alstyne their second score of the game, while a blocked extra point kept the game tied 14-14. The score would remain tied going into half time.

In the second half, the Panthers offensive line put on a clinic, lead by senior center Zane Madison, as the defensive line for the Cardinals got bullied. Throwing his 304-pound frame around, Madison was a wall of defense for his quarterback, coming up with key blocks and setting up running lanes. With the blocking picked up on the O-line, the Panthers could begin to control the ground game.

“We challenged them hard during halftime,” said Van Alstyne head coach Mikel Miller about his O-line. “We knew with the way they were lining up defensively we were going to need to run the ball. I’m proud of the job they did.”

This was evident at the beginning of the first Van Alstyne drive of the second half. With the offensive line leading with blocks, running back Justin Barnes opened the drive with a 8-yard run, followed by a 15-yard Gallagher run. With four converted first downs and 69 yards on a 12 play drive, Barnes would leap high above the pile at the goal line to give the Panthers their first lead of the day. After a blocked Moore the scoreboard read 20-14, with Van Alstyne in the lead.

Defensively in the second half, the Panthers were dominant with a blitz heavy attack. Senior defensive end Cayson Miller was instrumental in stopping Watson and the Cardinals run game, plugging holes and making hustle plays to slow any Cardinal rushing gains. Colton Hobbs roamed large in the back field, knocking away passes and coming up with a key 59 yard interception in the game. Watson would be sacked twice and be held to 15 yards rushing in the half. Watson totalled 100 yards rushing in the first half of play.

“(The run) had been something we struggled stopping defensively all year,” said Coach Miller, “and we knew with a quarterback like Hunter Watson thats what they were going to do. We prepared for it the best we could, and I’m just proud of our defense showing up tonight.”

Both teams would go on to score once more in the second half, making the final score 28-20, which gave Van Alstyne their first victory against the Cardinals since 1989 and a tie for second place in the district.

“Its huge,” Coach Miller said of the win. “Gives us a chance to go into the play offs and get a good seed. It’s a great win for our program and I’m just really proud of these kids.”

Van Alstyne will next host Pilot Point on Nov. 10, with the playoffs in their sights. Pottsboro will hit the road to take on their rivals, the Whitesboro Bearcats, on the same night.