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Blue Collar Tough

Diamondback’s finish 10-2 after falling to Liberty Hill

The Sharyland Pioneer Diamondbacks 2023-2024 football season ended Friday night at Dub Farris Stadium in San Antonio after losing to the Liberty Hill Panthers 62-35. The Area round loss was only the second of the season, making their final record 10-2. Though it was not the intended outcome, the lessons the Diamondbacks learned and the experiences they shared this year will be helpful as they face the offseason challenges of district realignment, departing senior leadership, and replacing historic offensive production.

Friday’s game was the first time the Diamondbacks and Panthers had met since 2021, when the Panthers eliminated the Diamondbacks in the regional quarterfinals. The Panthers’ powerful T-formation was once again too much for the Diamondbacks to contain. All 62 Panther points were scored on the ground, with fullback Ben Carter leading the Panthers’ stable of backs with four rushing touchdowns.

First-half scores from Dylan Tijerina, Leo Espinoza Jr., and Will Goodloe kept the Diamondbacks within striking distance. However, a 34-21 deficit and a failed onside kick to open the third quarter allowed the Panthers to score easily from midfield, extending their lead to three scores. Third and fourth quarter rushing touchdowns from Tijerina and quarterback Julian Valdez were not enough to equal or minimize the impact of the Panthers’ 28 point second-half outburst.

“We knew they were a perennial powerhouse team. We knew we were going to have our hands full. Going in, we knew we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. We had to play well in all three phases: Offensively, defensively, and on special teams. We got off to a slow start… but once the game started rolling we got our groove back and we scored 35 points. Defensively, we just didn’t have an answer,” Pioneer head coach Eddie Galindo said.

The fortitude the Diamondbacks showed after falling behind 21-0 was characteristic of their trademark resiliency. They faced adversity all season but never cowered. From outlasting Laredo Alexander in an overtime road game to defeating the eventual co-district champions Mission Veterans, even their response after falling to the formidable Roma Gladiators in Roma was admirable.

“This team was resilient. There were times when we were tested. We went through some adversity and they never gave up. These kids bought in, they never fought, they stayed true to the process and were able to have a remarkable season,” Galindo said.

This offseason, the Diamondbacks will have to find replacements for most of their offensive production as senior quarterback Julian Valdez and receivers Leo Espinoza Jr, Antonio Carrizales, and Diego Chapa move on as a result of graduation. The quartet scored over 50 combined touchdowns and gained over 5,000 yards. Luckily, the Diamondbacks will return nine of eleven defensive starters, including defensive stars Andrew Rivera, Marco Rauda, Angel Villanueva, and Jaykob Mendez, who all finished with over 50 total tackles each. The defense may be the best unit for a team that consistently fields high-octane offenses.

Realignment is also on the horizon, but the Diamondbacks aren’t worried about things they can’t see. Next year’s landscape may be unfamiliar, so the Diamondbacks will keep working, preparing for whatever comes next.

“We’re not worried about realignment. We’ll deal with it when it gets here in February. We have an idea of who might be in our district, but we’ll worry about that when we get there. We’re focused on working hard in the offseason,” said Galindo.

Pioneer’s 23-24 season was a testament to the blue-collar toughness the entire Valley has come to expect from the Diamondbacks annually. Tough non-district opponents, in-game adversity, injuries, and a highly competitive district with three co-champions weren’t enough to hinder them. They outlasted circumstances that would’ve folded lesser teams. They fought every week against complacency and achieved one of the best seasons in school history.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going. It’s about the lessons we teach them in life. It’s a tough world out there. When they graduate, they’re gonna have to be tough to survive…. They’re gonna have to have that tough skin. That mental toughness to persevere and hopefully, we can instill some of that in them,” Galindo said.

The Diamondbacks finish the 2023-2024 football season as Co-District 16 5A-2 and Bi-district champions after defeating the Edcouch Elsa Yellow Jackets in the Bi-district round of the UIL State Playoffs. They notched their first double-digit win season since 2019. They produced RGV statistical leaders in quarterback Julian Valdez and the best receiver in the Valley, Leo Espinoza Jr. Their season is over, but the accomplishments they share and the effort it took to reach them will never be forgotten.

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