By Pat Turner
O’Connor’s 2017 football campaign could qualify as a banner year.
During the 13-1 season, the Panthers won the District 28-6A championship and advanced to the Division I Region IV finals before losing to 6A finalist Austin Lake Travis. From that O’Connor squad, six players signed to play college football.
No doubt it was a memorable time, but much of the experience from last year’s success graduated, meaning the Panthers have several questions to answer going into 2018. Uncertainty exists but for coach David Malesky the unknown brings tons of excitement.
“It’s an exciting type of year,” Malesky said. “We haven’t done this in four years. The unknown is exciting.
“We realize every year is a new year. New people are wearing the numbers that were worn last year. This year is going to be different. We graduated five guys who started as sophomores. You don’t replace that.”
Despite returning four offensive and four defensive starters, the well isn’t dry by any means. A good number of the players, who served in backup roles, are ready to fill the vacancies. In addition, O’Connor has tradition in its favor.
“One thing that has helped us in our tradition here,” Malesky said. “That is a special deal. We’ve had success in the past. It’s important to do well. They have grown up watching O’Connor football and they want to be part of it. Now, there’s a lot of guys getting that opportunity. We talk about the tradition.
“We have a tradition wall that has every jersey number and the players who wore them since Day One. We tell these players ‘you’re playing for those guys who played here before. You’re playing for what they did.”
Another positive for O’Connor came from a productive offseason, followed by more progress in spring drills. During that time, some of the questions were answered, especially the ones concerning player personnel.
One of the bright areas is the offensive line where Brannon Brown, a TCU commit, and Logan Parr return, along with Jackson Brooks. Having that strong trio manning the front is the perfect way to build the offense.
Good things also appear to be developing in the running game as Zion Taylor, whose brother Zaire signed with University of Houston, and transfer Jordan Maye have the tools to carry the load. As far as the passing game goes, the return of receiver Sam Castillo brings optimism.
Defensively, the Panthers look to build around the strength of lineman Pryson Greer, linebackers Gabe Diaz and Connor Callihan and free safety Grant Rustan.
Putting the players in the right positions was a top priority, but a heavy emphasis was placed on establishing leadership during the offseason.
“This was a different offseason, because guys who had led the program for a lot of years weren’t there anymore,” Malesky said. “We had to find new leaders. We talked about it a lot. We challenged some kids we felt like could be leaders and put it on their plate.”
Malesky looks for more improvement during the fall workouts. After all, once the Panthers return, the real challenge begins.
This year, the season also has a different look to it. While playing in District 28-6A the past two years, the Panthers, along with the other NISD teams, were in zones. That allowed five non-district games before beginning league play.
Because the zones have been discontinued, the 10 teams have a nine-district game schedule, meaning one non-district contest before leaping into the fire.
Growing up quickly is crucial. However, the Panthers will get a clear idea where they stand going into district as they scrimmage Smithson Valley, before opening the season against Cibolo Steele.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Malesky said. “We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and experimenting. We have to be the best we can be as quickly as we can. We saw a lot of growth during the offseason and spring. We got better each week and that excites me. We would like to think our team is going to continue to grow. Our scrimmage and game with Steele is going to be a tremendous challenge. But it will also be a great way to prepare.