Panthers rally past Hawks for bi-district win

Zach Duncan
For the Herald Democrat
Van Alstyne's Jaden Mahan blocks a punt during the Panthers' bi-district win over Iowa Park.

FORT WORTH — Iowa Park may have had the better start but it was Van Alstyne making the critical plays in crunch time as the Panthers held off the Hawks for a 23-16 victory in a Class 4A Division II Region I bi-district contest at Chisholm Trail.

Dakota Howard caught two touchdown passes and Jaden Mahan came up with an interception and blocked punt, second the Panthers (8-3) to the area round for the second time in three years. VA will face Monahans in the area round at 7 p.m. on Friday at Shotwell Stadium in Abilene.  

Meanwhile, a streak of seven straight years with a playoff win came to an end for Iowa Park (5-5).

The Panthers scored 23 consecutive points after trailing 9-0 midway through the second quarter. Van Alstyne took its first lead with 6:54 left in the third quarter thanks to prime field position after Mahan’s blocked punt set up Diego Hernandez to drill a 38-yard field goal.  

Up to this point, Iowa Park’s aggressive defense hadn’t surrendered a big play, but that changed when Gavin Montgomery found Howard on a slant for a 63-yard touchdown on Van Alstyne’s next possession.  

“That safety was good at reading my eyes, so I had to look one way a little, then float it over that outside backer,” the senior quarterback said. “Dakota ran a great route and did a great job getting off the line.”  

The second half went from bad to worse for Iowa Park when quarterback Ty Cunningham was hit when he threw a fourth-quarter pass, resulting in Mahan’s interception at the Hawk 26-yard line. Montgomery found Howard over the top for a 19-yard score and a 23-9 advantage with 9:31 remaining. Howard had two catches for 82 yards and Mahan finished with a team-high 73 yards on 16 carries.

The Hawks finally put a drive together that ended with Cunningham’s four-yard touchdown run with seven minutes left. They got the ball twice more but turned it over on downs both times.  

Van Alstyne clinched the game with back-to-back sacks of Cunningham on a drive that ended at the Iowa Park 22. From there, the Panthers ran out the final two minutes to capture their first playoff victory at the Class 4A level.  

“It’s huge, there’s only one time you get to do that,” Van Alstyne head coach Mikeal Miller said. “Our d-line stepped up and got pressure, and our secondary stepped up big tonight.”  

The Hawks jumped out to a 9-0 lead behind Jaydon Southard’s 33-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and Cannon Whittington’s 21-yard field goal. At that juncture, the Panthers only had one first down — and that came on a fake punt.   

But Van Alstyne responded before halftime with a 14-play, 76-yard drive capped off with Gavin Bybee’s 13-yard touchdown grab. Another key play occurred on the final snap of the half as Cunningham's pass to Evan Dietrichson in the end zone was ruled incomplete. 

Montgomery, who finished 14-of-21 for 132 yards, thought cutting the deficit before half-time was critical. 

“Our offense was being stagnant at the beginning and we had a couple mishaps, so getting that score was huge,” Montgomery said. “And our defense stepped up. We usually don’t win if we’re scoring 23 points.”  

Southard finished with 150 rushing yards on 21 carries plus a juggling interception on Montgomery’s deep ball. Cunningham, who took over quarterback duties mid-season, threw for 63 yards and rushed for 52 yards.