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Aaron Morris, left, talked to his players during Saturday's scrimmage. Morris will make his debut as the new Park Rapids head football coach Friday night against Wadena-Deer-Creek. (Vance Carlson / Enterprise)

Morris looks to build winning program

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When Aaron Morris was named head coach of the Park Rapids football team, he vowed to put in long hours to build a winning tradition.

He's expecting the same kind of dedication from his players.

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"It takes a lot of dedication and commitment from the coaches and the kids to build a winning program," said Morris, who was a 1998 graduate of Park Rapids Area High School and has served as a junior high and assistant football coach at Park Rapids for the last six years. "I'm honored to have the opportunity to be the head football coach. I enjoy what I do and hopefully I'll be here for the long run. I want the kids to work hard and have fun playing football. I'm going to work hard to build a winning program and get Park Rapids back to the state tournament."

Morris saw a glimpse of that dedication this summer when between 20 and 35 players showed up for Sunday night workouts. In addition, several players hit the weight room on a consistent basis during the off-season.

"The off-season is important and we had a good showing this summer," said Morris. "Being successful comes down to dedication. Being in the weight room is the key to a successful program. A lot of guys were dedicated and worked hard this summer."

Even though he knows it will take some time to implement his new offensive and defensive schemes, Morris inherits a talented group of athletes with the potential to produce a winning season right away.

Of the 40 players in grades 10-12, only five return as starters on offense and seven are back as starters on defense. Looking to lead the Panthers this season are those returning starters: seniors Tucker Coborn (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), Kevin McMorrow (6-2, 190), Caleb Atkins (5-7, 210), John Drury (6-2, 200), Dan Ricke (6-0, 170) and Kenny Weaver (6-0, 235) and juniors Christian Ridlon (6-2, 240) and Billy Kimball (5-8, 195). Atkins, Drury and McMorrow will serve as captains.

Offensively, the Panthers will rely on team speed to offset a lack of size.

Coborn returns at running back after rushing 12 times for 136 yards and a TD and catching 11 passes for 254 yards and four TDs last season.

McMorrow will be back at fullback after leading the team with 96 carries for 517 yards and three TDs last season.

Drury (three catches for 42 yards and three carries for 13 yards) provides depth in the backfield while Ricke (who had a 19-yard TD reception) returns at tight end and will serve as the back-up quarterback. Junior Dan Pike (6-0, 175) is scheduled as the starting quarterback with junior Colin Vaadeland (5-7, 165) also seeing time in the backfield. Seniors Cameron Free (5-7, 135), Paul Dirks (6-0, 165), AJ Spears (5-9, 140) and Jared Naeve (6-0, 165) and juniors Dan Hovelsrud (6-3, 175), Kevin Just (5-11, 160) and Kyle Kanten (5-11, 145) will provide depth at receiver.

Up front, the Panthers will rely on Atkins at center, Kimball at guard, and Ridlon and Weaver at tackle. Junior Tyler Barr (6-2, 200) is the other leading candidate at guard with seniors Jake Grimes (6-0, 180) and Jared Nash (6-0, 165) battling for a starting spot. Also battling for a starting spot at tackle are Nash and junior Nick Belfiori (6-0, 185).

Those players are looking to fill the spots lost to the graduation of six Heart O'Lakes Conference players: Kevin Vaadeland, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Sievers, Devon Ondracek, Justin Peterson and Jake Swenson. Vaadeland led the team with 25 receptions for 294 yards and three TDS, rushed 79 times for 294 yards and three TDs and had 83 defensive points. Walsh completed 47 of 107 passes for 726 yards and seven TDs, rushed 49 times for 254 yards and two TDs and had 44.5 defensive points. Peterson gained 334 yards on 97 carries with two TDs. Sievers was second on the team with 78.5 defensive points and joined Ondracek and Swenson as the leaders on the offensive line.

Providing depth offensively will be sophomores Levi Erickson (5-10, 165 running back/receiver), Logan Schmaus (6-2, 220 lineman), Brandon Ritter (6-1, 225 lineman), Luke Hartig (5-7, 130 running back/receiver), Zach Steffen (5-5, 145 running back), Ryan Peterson (5-9, 150 lineman), Zach O'Hern (6-0, 160 receiver), Jeff Hemenway (5-6, 155 lineman), Brock Fritze (5-7, 145 running back/receiver), Josh Crist (6-1, 150 receiver), Cole Tretbar (6-3, 180 quarterback/receiver), Brent Johnson (5-5, 130 running back/receiver), Scott Wolff (6-1, 145 receiver), Cory Odland (5-8, 160 quarterback/running back), Forrest Drury (6-0, 170 running back/receiver), Jamison Nessman (6-2, 210 lineman), Robert Borger (5-10, 165 lineman), Kyle Kniss (5-7, 155 tight end) and Caleb Abraham (5-10, 145 running back/receiver).

"Our strength is our quickness. We're not going to be bigger than other teams, but we're going to be quicker and fundamentally sound," said Morris. "We're going to spread it out and use our quickness to get outside. Our line is going to be the key. If our line is quick off the ball, we're going to be competitive."

On defense, the Panthers return Weaver and Ridlon at tackle, McMorrow, Kimball and Drury at linebacker, Coborn at cornerback and Ricke at safety.

Coborn had 47 points with 13 solo tackles, 34 assists, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Ricke tallied 10 solo tackles and 42 assists for 39 points. Drury had 10 solo tackles, 39 assists and two fumble recoveries for 33.5 points. McMorrow had 31.5 points on 10 solo tackles, 33 assists and one interception. Ridlon had 27 assists, two sacks and one forced fumble for 25.5 points.

Looking to claim the other starting spots are Grimes, Atkins, Belfiori and Barr up front; Nash, Drury, Dirks, Pike and Grimes at linebacker; and Dirks, Kanten and Odland in the secondary. Providing depth will be Hovelsrud at end, Naeve and Vaadeland at linebacker, and Free, Spears and Just in the secondary.

McMorrow and Coborn will handle the kicking duties with Forrest Drury doing the punting. Coborn, Dirks, Vaadeland and Odland will return kicks.

"We're going to play a 4-4 defense and do a lot of blitzing to put pressure on the quarterback," said Morris. "We have a lot of athleticism, so we're going to be quick to the ball. With our depth, we have the numbers so we can rotate people on defense."

The Panthers return to the Heart O'Lakes North Division with Crookston, East Grand Forks, Pequot Lakes, Perham, Roseau and Thief River Falls. In the South Division are Breckenridge, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, Pelican Rapids, Staples-Motley, Wadena-Deer Creek, Warroad and West Central Area. Section 8AA features defending champion Perham, runner-up Thief River Falls, Crookston, East Grand Forks, Pequot Lakes, Roseau and Staples-Motley.

Going into the season, Morris is looking for the Panthers to jump out to a fast start and avoid a late-season letdown that led to Park Rapids' five-game losing streak and 3-6 overall record last season. The Panthers begin that quest at Wadena-Deer Creek Friday night.

"Our goal is to have a winning record, but I'll consider it a successful season if the kids make progress and have fun," said Morris, who will be assisted by offensive coordinator Joe Grimes and defensive coordinator Brett Bishop. "We lost a lot of key players, but I think we're going to surprise some teams. I want us to be playing our best football in late October. I want us to make it to the second round and make a run at the section title."

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