Defense sparked Panthers' 6-3 season
After reaching a section championship game for the first time in almost three decades a year ago, Aaron Morris thought the Park Rapids football team had the talent to return to the section title game this fall.
The Panthers were on track to return to section final and advance to the state tournament for the first time since 1984 by going 6-2 during the regular season and earning the No. 1 seed for the Section 8AAA playoffs.
That dream season turned into a nightmare when Pequot Lakes rallied from a 26-0 deficit late in the third quarter to defeat Park Rapids 34-26 in a section semifinal game.
“It was a tough way to end the season, but we accomplished a lot this year,” said Morris, who shared the Section 8AAA Coach of the Year honor. “We took off from last year and gained a lot of confidence. I knew we’d be competitive and finish .500 or better. The kids played with a lot of heart and determination. They got better and better and began to understand what it takes to win.”
The Panthers opened the season with a 35-14 loss at Hawley. Hawley, which led 16-8 at the half, gained 376 yards while holding Park Rapids to 207 yards. Hawley ended the season rated No. 8 in the Class AA poll and won the Section 8AA title.
A four-game winning streak followed as the Panthers’ defense allowed only five touchdowns.
Park Rapids jumped out to a 21-0 lead at the half in a 21-6 win over Roseau in Week 2. The Panthers gained 284 yards while forcing five turnovers and allowing 276 yards.
Another dominating first half sparked the Panthers to a 38-7 win at Crookston in Week 3. Park Rapids, which led 26-0 after the first quarter and 38-0 at the half, finished with 300 yards in offense while allowing 256 yards.
In Week 4, the Panthers compiled 249 yards in offense in a 14-12 win over Pequot Lakes. Park Rapids’ defense held the Patriots to 184 yards in the win.
Park Rapids racked up a season-high 378 yards in a 34-7 rout of Thief River Falls in Week 5. The Panthers, who led 21-7 at the half, held Thief River Falls to 253 yards in the game. Thief River Falls ended the season rated No. 14 in the Class AAAA poll.
The Panthers led Detroit Lakes 7-0 at the half before the Lakers rallied for a 14-7 win in Week 6. Park Rapids (which was rated No. 9 in the Class AAA poll that week) compiled 232 yards in offense while Detroit Lakes (which was rated No. 6 in the Class AAAA poll) had 299 yards. Detroit Lakes would end the season rated No. 9 in the state poll and as the Section 8AAAA champion.
Park Rapids’ defense dominated East Grand Forks in Week 7, but it took a touchdown in overtime to give the Panthers a 6-0 victory. Park Rapids finished with 267 yards in offense while holding the Green Wave to only 65 yards.
The Panthers secured the top seed in the section and ended a 17-game losing streak to Perham with a 7-0 win in the regular-season finale. Park Rapids prevailed despite committing five turnovers and compiling only 162 yards in offense. The Panthers forced three turnovers and held Perham to only 153 yards. Perham ended the season rated No. 15 in the Class AAA poll. That win helped the Panthers share the Heart O’Lakes Conference title with Detroit Lakes with a 5-1 record.
In the section semifinals, Park Rapids’ defense again dominated as the Panthers claimed a 20-0 lead at the half. The No. 4-seeded Patriots scored five touchdowns during an eight-minute stretch beginning in the final minute of the third quarter to rally for the upset. Pequot Lakes forced four turnovers and held the Panthers to 165 yards in offense while amassing 389 yards, 309 of those in the second half.
Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton defeated Pequot Lakes in the section title game. D-G-F ended the season rated No. 13 in the state Class AAA poll.
The Panthers, who ended the season rated No. 8 in the Class AAA poll, scored 167 points (18.6 per game) while allowing 115 points (12.8 per game). Park Rapids posted two shutouts and allowed only one touchdown in three other games in finishing second among Class AAA schools in scoring defense. Park Rapids’ defense forced 28 turnovers with 16 fumble recoveries and 12 interceptions while adding 14 quarterback sacks. The defense allowed 255 yards a game, including 207 rushing and 48 passing.
Offensively, the Panthers averaged 259 yards a game with 134 rushing and 125 passing.
“Our offense struggled a little bit, but our defense made things happen,” said Morris. “Our defense hit hard and we always had five or six guys flying to the ball. It was a total team effort.”
Leading the Panthers this season were seniors Kalvin Hagan, Noah MacPherson, Drew Bade, Josh Severtson, Rilee Johnson, Tyler McCollum, Kurt Fritze, Nate Rak, Spencer Adolphson, Connor Smythe and Jamie Stewart; juniors Jordan McCollum, Jon Burlingame, Ben Baumgartner, Riley Massie, Derek Porozinski, Brandon Johnson, Zach Tretbar, Jeff Dickinson, Zach Hagen and Tristan Hendrickson; sophomores Damion Hanke, Conner Byer, Matt Bade, Micah Barrett, Tristan Breitweser, Remington Hagan, Isaac Kosel, Noah Schulz and Jacob Mickelson; and freshmen Justin Dravis and Jarrett Johnson.
MacPherson received the team’s Gary Rehn Award as the team’s Most Valuable Player and the Mike McClelland Award as the team’s Most Valuable Defensive Player. Fritze received the Kip Gauldin Leadership Award while Stewart was named the team’s Most Improved Player.
MacPherson was named the Heart O’Lakes Conference North Division’s Most Valuable Player and was joined on the all-conference team by Fritze, Tyler McCollum, Rak and Severtson. Drew Bade, Stewart, Baumgartner and Burlingame received all-conference honorable mention honors.
Leading the offense on the line were Fritze and Rak at the tackles, Stewart and Hagen at the guards, and Smythe at center. Dickinson and Brandon Johnson filled in at the guards while Tretbar was a back-up at tackle.
Tyler McCollum completed 71 of 170 passes for 1,094 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for a TD before being injured in the playoff game. Drew Bade (1 for 7 for 12 yards) and Byer (1 for 1 for 8 yards) were the back-ups at quarterback.
In the backfield, Baumgartner was the leading rusher with 133 carries for 484 yards and six TDs. Burlingame rushed 69 times for 238 yards and three TDs, Severtson had 37 carries for 130 yards and Rilee Johnson gained 115 yards on 21 carries with two TDs. Also carrying the ball were MacPherson (four carries for 94 yards and a TD), Remington Hagan (13 carries for 32 yards), Matt Bade (19 carries for 32 yards), Jordan McCollum (eight carries for 24 yards), Drew Bade (eight carries for 23 yards), Porozinski (one carry for 18 yards), Breitweser (one carry for 4 yards), Kalvin Hagan (one carry for 0 yards) and Kosel (one carry for 0 yards). Rilee Johnson and Jordan McCollum missed most of the season with injuries.
MacPherson was the Panthers’ leading receiver, making 27 receptions for 501 yards and five TDs. Drew Bade caught 13 passes for 185 yards and a TD, Baumgartner had 10 receptions for 116 yards, Porozinski made seven receptions for 109 yards, Severtson had six catches for 135 yards, Burlingame caught three passes for 27 yards and a TD, Rilee Johnson had three receptions for 22 yards, Massie caught a pass for 11 yards and Barrett had a catch for 8 yards.
Severtson (10 returns for 275 yards and a TD), Remington Hagan (five returns for 56 yards), Burlingame (four returns for 26 yards), Baumgartner (three returns for 96 yards and a TD), Breitweser (one return for 8 yards) and Jordan McCollum (one return for 5 yards) returned kickoffs while Severtson (seven returns for 82 yards), MacPherson (four returns for 23 yards), Drew Bade (four returns for 2 yards) and Baumgartner (one return for 16 yards) returned punts.
Baumgartner (42 points), MacPherson (40 points), Severtson (28 points), Burlingame (24 points) and Rilee Johnson (12 points) led the team in scoring. Jarrett Johnson made five extra-point kicks while Stewart made two extra-point kicks.
Defensively, the Panthers were led by Stewart and Porozinski at the ends; Fritze and Rak at the tackles; MacPherson, Rilee Johnson, Matt Bade and Hanke at inside linebacker; Baumgartner, Severtson and Remington Hagan at outside linebacker; Massie and Drew Bade at cornerback; and Burlingame at safety. Tretbar and Schulz provided depth at the ends while Dickinson and Adolphson filled in at the tackles.
MacPherson led the defense in points with 144, including 36 solo tackles, 60 assisted tackles, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two knocked down passes, one interception and one sack.
Baumgartner was second in points with 91, highlighted by 17 solo tackles, 43 assists, five recovered fumbles and two knocked down passes.
Fritze had 19 solo tackles, 35 assists, one forced fumble, one recovered fumble and three sacks for 86 points.
Massie compiled 83 points with 19 solo tackles, 25 assists, one forced fumble, two recovered fumbles, four knocked down passes and two interceptions.
Rak had 14 solo tackles, 38 assists and five sacks for 81 points.
Severtson finished with 74 points with 15 solo tackles, 28 assists, one forced fumble, two recovered fumbles, two knocked down passes, one interception and one sack.
Burlingame used 16 solo tackles, 23 assists, one fumble recovery, one knocked down pass and four interceptions to tally 71 points.
Stewart had 69 points with 14 solo tackles, 23 assists, two forced fumbles, one knocked down pass and four sacks.
Drew Bade compiled 12 solo tackles, 11 assists, five knocked down passes and three interceptions for 54 points.
Hanke had 51 points with 10 solo tackles and 31 assists.
Rilee Johnson finished with 47 points with nine solo tackles, 27 assists and one recovered fumble.
Porozinski used five solo tackles, 17 assists, one forced fumble and one knocked down pass for 31 points.
Remington Hagan had eight solo tackles, nine assists and one fumble recovery for 27 points.
Matt Bade’s seven solo tackles, five assists and one interception led to 22 points.
Adolphson also hit double digits in points with 12 with two solo tackles and eight assists.
Also scoring points on the defense were Tretbar (9), Dravis (5), Jordan McCollum (4), Hagen (4), Kalvin Hagan (4), Schulz (3), Breitweser (3), Kosel (2), Smythe (2), Barrett (2), Mickelson (2), Brandon Johnson (1) and Dickinson (1).
Severtson (16 punts for 496 yards) averaged 31 yards per punt, Brandon Johnson (nine punts for 209 yards) averaged 23.2 yards per punt and Drew Bade (four punts for 147 yards) averaged 36.8 yards per punt. Stewart (23 kickoffs for 327 yards) averaged 40 yards per kickoff, Porozinski (six kickoffs for 246 yards) averaged 41 yards per kickoff and Fritze (four kickoffs for 114 yards) averaged 28.5 yards per kickoff. Tretbar and Dravis were the long snappers.
Even though the Panthers graduate several key players, Morris is counting on his team to produce another winning season and make another run at reaching the section title game.
“Our seniors are going to be hard to replace. They understood their roles and did whatever it took to help the team,” said Morris. “We’re not going to be rebuilding next year; we’re going to be reloading. We’re going to be competitive again next year. We might be younger next year, but I’m counting on the kids at the lower levels to step up and fill some important shoes. Those younger kids will have to work hard and be dedicated to getting better if we want to keep the momentum going.”