Pine Bluffs junior Diego Paniagua led his team with 12.3 tackles per game last season, that average tied for sixth-best in Class 1A nine-man. Robert Munoz/WyoSports

CHEYENNE – Diego Paniagua broke his right hand during the second quarter of the first round of the Class 1A nine-man playoffs last year.

The junior didn’t hesitate to play through the pain, with the hopes of helping rally a Pine Bluffs team that fell to Shoshoni, ultimately ending the season.

But, being the final game of the year, Paniagua just wanted to leave it all on the field.

“I knew my hand wasn’t feeling so good,” he said. “But I just played through it.”

The result was surgery, which included a plate and three screws and a cast that was on for two months. However, prior to the injury was a standout sophomore campaign that saw Paniagua lead Pine Bluffs in tackles with 111 at 12.3 per game. That number also tied him for sixth in the state, while he finished seventh in total defensive points.

“He held his own as a sophomore playing mike linebacker and calling the defense,” Hornets coach Will Gray said. “He did a lot of good things for us.”

Paniagua also holds his own on the offensive line, playing guard in the three-man front. Not the biggest guy on the team, he’s able to find success with his quickness, which puts him in position to make better pulls on the offensive side of the ball and get around blocks on defense, he said.

It was what helped 6-foot, 175-pounder make the biggest leap in his all-state caliber season.

“No. 1 is just his speed,” Gray said. “I know he’s not the biggest, but he’s a fast kid. He’s starting to understand angles and what it means to actually scrape and go find the ball … now, as a junior, he’s really starting to figure it out.”

Next to Paniagua on the offensive line this season are a pair of sophomores. It’s put him in a position where he needs to situate and lead the offensive line. Entering his third year as a starter in the trenches, with previous experience starting at center during his freshman campaign, he knows the roles well.

“Offensively, he gets the line where they need to be, he really gets (the other two) settled down and tells them where to go,” Gray said. “Defensively, he gets things organized for us.”

Paniagua credits the two edge rushers – Ty Sweeter and Reed Thompson – for helping him find success in the Hornets’ 3-3-2 scheme on defense. Their ability to draw attention and not let anything outside allows Paniagua to sit and clean things up in the middle.

“We all fly off the ball, and (Paniagua) fills those gaps,” Thompson said. “(Sweeter and I) set the edge and just find and kill the ball, and (Paniagua’s) there.”

Added Paniagua, “A lot of our defense just plays together. (Thompson) and (Sweeter) set the edge for us linebackers, and when they fill the edge, the only place to go is middle, and that’s me right there.”

Robert Munoz is a writer for WyoSports. He can be reached at rmunoz@wyosports.net. Follow him on Twitter @rmunoz307.

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