Panthers determined to take the next step
Aaron Morris is hoping the Park Rapids football team can take one more major step forward this fall.
Last season, the Panthers advanced to their first section championship game since 1985. Perham’s 51-26 win at the Fargodome prevented the Panthers from advancing to the state playoffs for the first time since 1984. That loss ended the Panthers’ season at 5-6, which was the most successful season since going 7-3 in 2007.
The key to the Panthers’ success last season was having the most balanced offensive attack in school history. Park Rapids threw for a school record 1,551 yards and added 2,505 yards on the ground while averaging 368.7 yards and 28.6 points a game.
Last year’s senior group was a main reason for that success, especially on an offense that had 18 plays of at least 40 yards and six plays of at least 75 yards.
Ian Johnson rushed 140 times for 905 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 14 passes for 207 yards and two TDs while scoring 93 points. Cory Gartner rushed 102 times for 600 yards and seven TDs and caught five passes for 104 yards and one TD. Zach Eystad rushed 46 times for 371 yards and six TDs and caught five passes for 169 yards and two TDs. David Dirks rushed 84 times for 283 yards and three TDs and caught six passes for 65 yards. Kody Walsh rushed 15 times for 108 yards. Kyle Goplerud caught 26 passes for a school record 537 yards and five TDs. Eystad also had 33 kickoff returns for 589 yards and a TD while Gartner returned 16 punts for 101 yards. Chris Goplerud, Andy Waller and Kyle Ritter solidified the offensive line.
Defensively, Chris Goplerud (20 solo tackles, 47 assists), Gartner (25 solo tackles, 41 assists, five forced fumbles or fumble recoveries), Waller (16 solo tackles, 44 assists, four interceptions), Kyle Goplerud (16 solo tackles, 38 assists), Dirks (19 solo tackles, 33 assists), Walsh (10 solo tackles, 35 assists, three sacks), Eystad (seven solo tackles, 37 assists, four interceptions) and Johnson (five solo tackles, 19 assists, two interceptions) led a defense that forced 27 turnovers.
Even though the Panthers graduated those nine starters, Morris is counting on the returning players to produce a winning season and make a run at a state berth.
“We were one win away from going to state last year,” said Morris, who will be assisted by Joe Grimes, Zach Holsman, Mike Baumgartner, J.T. Luther, Chuck Schmitz, Aron Moses, Bob Kapsner and Clarence Davis. “The guys want to take it one step farther and get to the next level. Getting to state is a very attainable goal.”
Leading the Panthers this season will be the seven returning starters: seniors Kurt Fritze, Rilee Johnson, Noah MacPherson, Tyler McCollum, Nate Rak, Josh Severtson and Connor Smythe. Also expected to play key roles are seniors Drew Bade, Kalvin Hagan and Jamie Stewart; juniors Ben Baumgartner, Jon Burlingame, Jeff Dickinson, Connor Farrell, Zach Hagen, Brandon Johnson, Jordan McCollum, Riley Massie, Jaden Olson, Derek Porozinski and Zach Tretbar; and sophomores Damion Hanke and Isaac Kosel.
Offensively, the Panthers return five starters in Tyler McCollum (6-foot-5, 180 pounds) at quarterback, MacPherson (6-3, 200) at wide receiver, Fritze (6-3, 210) and Rak (6-0, 190) at the tackles, and Smythe (6-0, 170) at center.
McCollum broke the school record for completions and passing yards in a season by completing 84 of 202 passes for 1,445 yards and 15 TDs and passing yards in a game with 236. McCollum was a Heart O’Lakes Conference selection last season.
MacPherson tied the school record in receptions with 29 for 432 yards and five TDs. MacPherson also received all-conference honors last year.
Looking to fill the other starting spots on offense are Rilee Johnson (6-3, 180), Severtson (5-10, 170), Baumgartner (5-8, 160), Burlingame (6-0, 165), Massie (5-7, 145), Jordan McCollum (6-1, 175) and Olson (5-10, 165) in the backfield with Bade (6-5, 180), Porozinski (6-2, 185), Farrell (6-0, 170) and Hanke (6-0, 180) at wide receiver. Up front, Stewart (6-4, 200), Dickinson (5-7, 195), Hagen (5-11, 180), Brandon Johnson (5-9, 175) and Tretbar (6-2, 175) will compete for starting jobs and provide depth on the line.
Burlingame (10 carries for 74 yards and a TD), Baumgartner (23 carries for 52 yards and one reception for 25 yards), Jordan McCollum (there carries for 30 yards), Olson (seven carries for 26 yards), Massie (four carries for 13 yards) and Porozinski (two receptions for 18 yards) return with some experience on offense.
“We’re going to be a lot like last year. We’re going to run and gun, but this year we’ll probably pass more than run,” said Morris. “We’ve got a lot of talent at quarterback and wide receiver. Tyler will have a lot of height to throw the ball to. We have a lot of talent to replace, especially in the backfield, but I feel we have the kids to fill those spots. I have faith to give the ball to all of our running backs. We’re not big, but we’re looking good up front. We have depth up front, so we’ll be able to give some guys some rest. Hopefully our offense can pick up where we left off last year.”
Defensively, the Panthers return four starters with Fritze at tackle, Rilee Johnson and MacPherson at inside linebacker, and Severtson at cornerback.
Rilee Johnson returns as the leading tackler on defense with 36 solo tackles, 88 assists and six forced fumbles or fumble recoveries.
MacPherson was second on the team in tackles with 32 solos and 64 assists while also adding three interceptions.
Fritze tallied 13 solo tackles, 37 assists and two sacks while Rak had 15 solo tackles, 34 assists and two sacks. Severtson had six solo tackles, 26 assists and returned an interception for a TD and returned seven kickoffs for 124 yards.
Competing for the other starting spots on defense are Stewart, Dickinson, Porozinski and Tretbar on the line; Brandon Johnson and Hagan (5-10, 165) at linebacker; and Tyler McCollum, Bade, Burlingame, Massie, Jordan McCollum and Kosel (5-7, 145) in the secondary.
“It’s going to be tough for teams to outrun us,” said Morris. “We’re going to be quick to the ball and we have guys who like to hit.”
Providing depth on offense and defense will be senior Spencer Adolphson (5-7, 150 lineman); juniors Colin Mack (5-11, 150 lineman) and Tristan Hendrickson (5-11, 195 lineman); and sophomores Austin Thelen (5-7, 130 wide receiver/cornerback), Conner Byer (6-1, 175 quarterback/defensive end), Micah Barrett (6-1, 165 wide receiver/linebacker), Tristan Breitweser (5-9, 150 wide receiver/cornerback), Matt DeLaHunt (6-0, 150 wide receiver/safety), Remington Hagan (5-8, 140 running back/linebacker), Noah Schultz (5-0, 180 center/defensive tackle), Jacob Mickelson (6-3, 245 tackle) and Jacob Engst (5-7, 130 wide receiver/cornerback). MacPherson, Fritze, Tyler McCollum and Adolphson will serve as captains.
“I saw more excitement for football in the off-season than I’ve seen in a while. These kids are working hard and they want to get better,” said Morris. “We have a lot of athleticism. We have some important spots to fill. The big question is whether the underclassmen will step up to the plate and fill those spots. I feel they’re ready to go. We’re going to utilize the kids’ skills and have fun. If we play the game the way we know how to play it, we’re going to get better and better and be playing our best ball of the season come playoff time.”
The Panthers will have a new look in Section 8AAA with Crookston moving to Section 8AA, Staples-Motley moving to Section 6AA and East Grand Forks moving down from Section 8AAAA. Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, Perham, Pequot Lakes and Roseau will round out the new six-team Section 8AAA.
“I see us being very competitive this year. I feel we can play with any team on our schedule and I feel we’re a top-2 team in the section,” said Morris, whose team opens the season at Hawley Friday night. “We want to get back to the section championship game and prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. I’m excited. It should be a fun season.”