FORT STOCKTON, Texas (KMID/KPEJ) – When Jeremy Hickman was hired as head football coach at Fort Stockton, he stepped into a competitive, aggressive and successful program. The Panthers were coming off a regular season with only two losses, but were unable to advance deep into the playoffs.

Already doing a lot of things right, Hickman and his new coaching staff come in with the purpose of fine-tuning this group and pushing them to a new level.

“We’re just trying to amp up the intensity. We’re trying to work at a higher level. We’re trying to make them think at a higher level and understand that, you guys did this last year, can you do more?” Hickman said. “We have several returners back. Can you squeeze a little more and push yourself to that third or fourth round?”

The Panthers have been stopped in the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons. They charged on full steam ahead in 2021 until they ran into Dumas in the postseason. Averaging 36 points per game, Fort Stockton was held to just six against Dumas.

“We wanted more. We didn’t want it to end just like that,” senior linebacker Daren Ureste said. “We were really bummed about it. It was a really hard loss for us.”

Now, this senior group is set out to assure that this does not happen to them a third consecutive year.

“It just gives us a sour taste in our mouth to want to do better and not fall that short. It hurts,” Cruz Rojas, senior right tackle and defensive end, said.

A learning curve for the Panthers this year is adjusting to the new coaching staff and the new style of play they are installing. The team’s former head coach Mike Peters had been with Fort Stockton for six seasons.

“It’s an adjustment we all have to make,” Rojas said. “The new coaching staff, the new type of system we run, the new play style we have now with Coach Peters leaving and Coach Hickman coming in. It’s different, but it’s also a good different.”

Hickman and company have the extra task of adjusting to a new district. After realignment in the offseason, Fort Stockton reclassified from 4A Division 1 to 4A Division 2.

The Panthers landed in District 1 along with Pecos, Monahans, and from the El Paso area, Clint, Clint Mountain View and Fabens.

The move restored a district rivalry between Fort Stockton and Monahans. They had been in the same district as recently as 2019, which was the current seniors’ freshman season.

“We got that love-hate passion for each other,” Rojas said of Monahans.

The other district opponents are not unfamiliar. The Panthers have beat Pecos three of the last four seasons, and they defeated Clint Mountain View in the first round of the playoffs last season 47-8.

“It’s not that they’re new, it’s just more the fact that some teams come out with more fire the next year than others,” Ureste said.

The new district assignment presents new logistical challenges as they will travel to three El Paso area schools, all of which are more than a three-hour bus ride away.

“We’re having to travel a lot further than what we’ve done. That presents issues on mentally being able to stay focused or get focused at the right time,” Hickman said.

Even so, the Panthers are prepared to face the challenge head-on and achieve their goals of advancing to the third or fourth round in the postseason.

“I see it as an opportunity to prove what Fort Stockton is really capable of,” senior linebacker and runningback Jaydrien Ramirez said.

The Panthers open up the season at home week one against El Paso Austin before trips to Alpine and Clint Horizon. They begin district play in week seven (Oct. 7) after their open week.