In the midst of a two-week break, the Sterlington Panthers have a chance to rest their legs and recover from bumps and bruises prior to closing out the regular season with nine games in 20 days.

In the midst of a two-week break, the Sterlington Panthers have a chance to rest their legs and recover from bumps and bruises prior to closing out the regular season with nine games in 20 days.

"It's getting close to playoff time," coach Kyle Keyes said. "We're getting into the grind it out phase where you need every win you can get. We have the beef of our schedule coming up in January. This is when it really counts."

Sterlington returns to the pitch for the Cenla Cup in Alexandria, Jan. 5-6. The Panthers are tentatively scheduled to face DeRidder, the No. 10 team in Division III, and Division II squads Natchitoches Central and Franklin.

Resuming District 2, Division IV play on Tuesday, Jan. 9, the Panthers host St. Frederick. Five of the final six regular season matches count toward the district table.

A second-year program in its first year of playoff eligibility, Sterlington currently owns an 8-6-1 record and stands No. 11 in the power rankings.

"To be 8-6-1 is not bad for the first year," Keyes said. "We're way ahead of the curve, which is a good thing."

One of the goals for the stretch run is to move into the top eight and earn a first-round bye for the playoffs.

Making its final appearance of the semester, Sterlington lost a tough 3-2 decision at No. 5 Glenmora on Thursday, Dec. 21.

"In the last two minutes, we had a corner kick that should have gone in," Keyes said. "It was so close. If it goes in, we go to a PK shootout."

Despite dropping to 1-1 in district play, Keyes could not be too disappointed in the result.

"After the game, I told the kids we proved we belong on the field with a top 10 team," Keyes said. "We're on the right path. We can hang with the best, and we might even beat the best at some point. We gave ourselves a chance.

"It was a back and forth game. We had a few little mistakes. That comes with growing pains. We just need a little more experience. There is no substitute for experience."

Center midfielder Duke Villarreal has continued to shine for the Panthers.

"Duke makes our offense go, and he organizes everybody on the defensive side," Keyes said.

Sophomores Cooper Reese and Mathew Husser have emerged as impact players.

"Cooper Reese has stepped up in the sweeper role, and is really growing as a player," Reese said. "It's going to be fun to watch him get better and better each year."

Husser has taken over in net since reporting from football.

"Mathew came back from football and said, 'Coach, I want to do it,'" Keyes said. "It takes someone with a special mentality to play goalie. Mathew Husser has shown he has it, and we're going to ride with him all the way. Being a goalie is like playing quarterback. If you make a mistake, you have to move on."