1 year without playoff run and we go to sleep on D-Ranch?

The Diamond Ranch High School football team’s approach has made it easier to dismiss it as a contender. Never one for pristine win-loss records thanks to difficult nonleague schedules, the Panthers were cast in the role of surprise team when they reached the CIF championship game in 2008. Until they did it again in 2009… finishing each season with a 7-7 record.

The only surprise last season was when Diamond Ranch didn’t make its typical postseason run. After an 0-3 start to the 2010 season, Diamond Ranch suffered two lopsided losses to end the year before exiting the playoffs in the opening round for the first time since 2002. As it turned out, the three teams that defeated the Panthers at the end of last season all reached the semifinals in the Southeast Division.

So when Diamond Ranch’s losing streak stretched into this season when the Panthers suffered their sixth consecutive defeat three weeks ago, it was easy to think their championship-game days were behind them.

Two impressive Hacienda League wins later, it looks like Diamond Ranch is up to its old tricks.

After opening league with a 21-13 win over the same Bonita team that handily defeated the Panthers on their way to last year’s CIF title game, Diamond Ranch beat a clearly improved Diamond Bar team Friday night to move to 2-0 in league and .500 on the season.

“It’s still early and we like what we’re doing but we haven’t peaked yet,” Diamond Ranch coach Roddy Layton said. “Our potential and our performance are getting closer together.”

Upon further review of Diamond Ranch’s second consecutive 0-3 start to a season, the Panthers lost the last two by a touchdown each, one of them to a defending CIF champion. In a 41-28 season-opening loss to Chino, the Panthers were without seven starters and its quarterback didn’t practice the week leading up to the game after suffering a concussion.

Layton’s philosophy hasn’t changed in seven seasons as the Diamond Ranch head coach but he is prompted to repeat himself every year upon entering league play with a losing record. This year has been no different.

“We don’t want to lose those games,” Layton said. “But we use it as an opportunity to experiment with some players in different roles and develop depth.”

The Panthers have an offensive front that dominated Diamond Bar on the way to 301 rushing yards. A stable of running backs led by sophomore Nick Gibson and senior all-purpose playmaker Andrew Fischer provide plenty of weapons. And the defense hasn’t given up more than 20 points since the season opener.

“I believe in this team,” Layton said. “If we stay healthy, I like our chances.”