Panthers overcome Mustangs

Ron Howell
Sports Editor

FORT STOCKTON — The first half of Friday’s contest between Fort Stockton and Sweetwater came to an end with the Mustangs enjoying a big statistical edge. But the scoreboard was a much different story. It was 7-7 at intermission, in spite of the fact that the Panthers were out-gained nearly 3-1 and had three first downs to 12 for Sweetwater.
Why? First, the inability of the visiting Mustangs to convert on their last two drives in Fort Stockton’s red zone following a sensational opening series, which lasted over six minutes and ended with Alex Gallegos’ 2-yard touchdown run and Andres Neri’s extra-point kick that gave Sweetwater a 7-0 lead.
Fort Stockton — after a pair of three-and-outs and a quick turnover its first three possessions — finally got its offense untracked late in the first half and scored to tie the game at 7, then took a 14-7 lead by scoring on the opening possession of a second half that saw the teams produce a total of 45 points.
Fort Stockton had 29 of them, and won the game 36-23 to put Sweetwater (1-4, 1-8) on the brink of failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, its last sub-.500 season.
Fort Stockton, which is now 3-2 in District 1-4A DII and 7-2 overall, still needs to beat Lamesa this Friday to assure a playoff spot for the first time since 2014. As for Sweetwater, it must now beat Monahans here Friday in its regular season finale and win a district tiebreaker for the No. 4 seed which would also involve Lamesa and Monahans — who are both 2-3 in district play.
Sweetwater QB Leo Holsey completed passes to five different receivers — Markus Meneses, Elijah Reyes, Neri, Tyler Warner and Darian Carr — on a 17-play, 80-yard opening drive ending in Gallegos’ TD run, then forced a first-quarter turnover and took over at Fort Stockton’s 32.
But after advancing to the Panthers’ 7, an incomplete fourth-down pass gave Fort Stockton the ball back.
The Mustangs got another shot before intermission after Fort Stockton scored to tie it at 7. Sweetwater advanced from its 45-yard line to Fort Stockton’s 17 before failing to convert again on a fourth-down play, though a fourth-down penalty had kept the drive going earlier.
After Fort Stockton took its first lead in the second half, Sweetwater regained it thanks to a fourth-down, 2-yard TD run by Holsey followed by his 2-point pass to Tony Padilla. That gave the Mustangs a 15-14 lead with 3:21 left in the third period.
But it would be the last time Sweetwater led, with Fort Stockton scoring late in the third quarter on an 11-yard Pedro Vasquez run for a 21-15 advantage.
The Panthers’ QB, Nick Johnson, ran for a score to extend the lead to 29-15 after Fort Stockton fell on a kick at Sweetwater’s 29. But Holsey hit Darian Carr on a 54-yard pass at the 9:46 mark of the fourth quarter and cut Stockton’s lead to six (29-23) after completing a 2-point pass. The defense held and the Mustangs got it back with a chance to regain the lead with plenty of time still remaining when disaster hit.
Fort Stockton fielded a short Sweetwater punt and Iram Villarreal returned it 29 yards to put the Mustangs back down by two scores, 36-23. Then after an interception, Fort Stockton ran out the clock.
Sweetwater head coach Ben McGehee said his team's inability to put more points on the board the first half helped cause the eventual downfall. "We should have been up 21-7 or even 21-0," he said. "If we had capitalized on our opportunities in the first half it's a whole different deal. We controlled the clock but when you get in the red zone your have to score. But I was really proud of our kids. They played their tails off. We've just got to find ways to win. We keep on making mistakes and not executing at critical moments."

Pictured: Alex Gallegos of Sweetwater gains yardage while getting blocking help by Tayton Burnett (70) and Ely Barrera in Friday's District 1-4A DII game at Fort Stockton.
Photo courtesy of Alexis Fountain/Fort Stockton Pioneer