Panthers set foundation for future
Going 2-7 wasn't the way Aaron Morris wanted to start his career as the head coach of the Park Rapids football team.
However, Morris was happy with the foundation the Panthers set for the future.
"Overall I thought the season went pretty well," said Morris. "I learned a lot and now the kids know what my system is and what my expectations are. Overall I was satisfied."
Turnovers proved to be a problem all season as 13 interceptions and 17 lost fumbles ended up giving the Panthers the No. 7 seed for the section playoffs.
The Panthers opened the season by defeating Wadena-Deer Creek in overtime for the second year in a row. Park Rapids led 7-0 at halftime before prevailing 13-7 in overtime. The Panthers had four turnovers and gained 194 yards while allowing 240 yards in that season-opening victory.
Three turnovers, including an interception for a touchdown, cost the Panthers in a 31-6 loss to East Grand Forks in Week 2. The Panthers, who trailed 16-6 at the half, compiled 252 yards in offense while allowing 276.
Thief River Falls built a 35-0 lead at the half en route to a 42-14 victory in Week 3. Park Rapids had 233 yards in offense while giving up 430 yards.
Park Rapids evened its record at 2-2 with a 21-7 win over Roseau in Week 4. The Panthers had 316 yards in offense in that win while allowing 324 yards.
Over the next three weeks, the Panthers played three of the state's top-rated teams and were outscored 125-35.
Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, the No. 10-ranked Class AA team, forced five turnovers (including an interception return for a touchdown) to spark a 35-0 victory in Week 5. The Rebels, who led 21-0 at the half, compiled 271yards in offense while holding Park Rapids to 154 yards.
In Week 6, Pequot Lakes returned a kickoff for a touchdown and recovered four fumbles in a 39-8 win over the Panthers. Pequot Lakes, which ended the season rated No. 8 in the Class AAA poll, led 32-0 at the half. The Patriots finished with 361 yards in offense while holding Park Rapids to 141 yards.
Perham compiled 478 yards and returned a kickoff for a TD in a 51-27 win over the Panthers in Week 7. Perham, which was rated No. 9 in the final Class AAA poll, broke open a 19-19 tie after the first quarter by scoring 32 unanswered points. Park Rapids compiled 257 yards in that game.
Five turnovers proved costly in Week 8 as Crookston ended the regular season with a 28-8 win over the Panthers. Park Rapids, which trailed 14-0 at the half, had 191 yards in offense while allowing 383 yards.
Turnovers were also a problem in the Section 8AAA playoff opener as Perham took advantage of six Park Rapids mistakes to spark a 36-22 victory. Perham led 24-0 after the first quarter and 36-6 at the half. The Yellowjackets finished with 272 yards in offense while allowing 294 yards.
For the season, the Panthers averaged 219 yards in offense (including 178 on the ground) while allowing 337 yards a game. Park Rapids' defense also had two safeties and forced 12 turnovers during the season.
"I thought we could have had one or two more wins, but we shot ourselves in the foot with a lot of turnovers," said Morris. "It was nice to get two wins. That's something we can build on next year."
Leading the Panthers this season were the starters: seniors Tucker Coborn, Kevin McMorrow, John Drury, Dan Ricke, Caleb Atkins, Paul Dirks, Jared Nash and AJ Spears; juniors Colin Vaadeland, Dan Pike, Dan Hovelsrud, Kyle Kanten, Billy Kimball, Christian Ridlon and Tyler Barr; and sophomores Cory Odland, Levi Erickson, Forrest Drury, Brandon Ritter and Brock Fritze.
Of that group, Coborn was named Co-Most Valuable Defensive Back in the North Division of the Heart O'Lakes Conference. McMorrow joined Coborn as an all-conference player while Atkins, John Drury, Ricke, Pike and Kimball received all-conference honorable mention honors. Coborn and McMorrow were all-conference honorable mention players last season.
Offensively, Atkins, Kimball, Ridlon, Nash, Ritter, Fritze and Barr handled the blocking duties on the line with Hovelsrud, Ricke, Dirks, Spears, Erickson and Forrest Drury alternating at receiver. In the backfield were Pike at quarterback and Coborn, McMorrow, John Drury and Vaadeland at the running backs.
Defensively, the Panthers had Ridlon, Kimball and Atkins at the tackles; Ritter, John Drury and Hovelsrud at the ends; McMorrow and Pike at inside linebacker; Coborn, Dirks and Vaadeland at outside linebacker; Ricke and Erickson at safety; and Kanten and Odland at cornerback.
Filling in on offense and defense were senior Cameron Free; foreign exchange student Armanda Padilla; juniors Kevin Just and Nick Belfiori; and sophomores Cole Tretbar, Josh Crist, Brent Johnson, Zach Steffen, Luke Hartig, Jeff Hemenway, Jameson Nessman, Logan Schmaus, Robert Borger, Ryan Peterson, Dyshaunte Brown, Tyler Ridlon, Scott Wolff, Kyle Kniss and Caleb Abraham.
Coborn received the Gary Rehn Award as the Panthers' Most Valuable Player. Despite missing the final two games of the season with an injury, Coborn led the team with seven receptions for 132 yards and two TDs and was second on the team in rushing with 457 yards on 91 carries and two TDs. Coborn also kicked six extra points. On defense, Coborn had 12 solo tackles, 26 assists and two fumble recoveries for 54 points.
McMorrow received the Mike McClelland Award as the team's Most Valuable Defensive Player. McMorrow led the team in defensive points with 157, including 25 solo tackles, 93 assists, two quarterback sacks and two fumble recoveries. On offense, McMorrow led the team in scoring with 46 points, rushing 102 times for 387 yards and six TDs and catching five passes for 80 yards and one TD.
John Drury led the team with 595 yards on 116 carries with two TDs and caught six passes for 67 yards and a TD. On defense, Drury had a team-leading 29 solo tackles and three sacks with 32 assists and two fumble recoveries for 103 points.
Pike completed 21 of 106 passes for 336 yards and five TDs and rushed for 96 yards and a TD. On defense, Pike was second in points with 104.5, including 22 solo tackles and 59 assists.
Ricke had 14 solo tackles, 51 assists and a team-leading three fumble recoveries for 85 points on defense.
Kimball finished with 61.5 defensive points with 11 solo tackles, 35 assists and 1.5 sacks.
Kanten had 14 solo tackles, 22 assists and one interception for 53 points.
Ritter finished with 44 defensive points, including 40 assisted tackles. Ritter was named the Panthers' Most Improved Player.
Christian Ridlon had 31 assisted tackles and 1.5 sacks for 39.5 points.
Nash had 29 assisted tackles and a fumble recovery for 38.5 defensive points.
Dirks had six solo tackles and 20 assists for 32 defensive points and Erickson had 31 defensive points with six solo tackles and 19 assists.
Also contributing on offense were Erickson (four carries for 26 yards and one reception for 32 yards), Vaadeland (11 carries for 21 yards and one reception for 12 yards), Forrest Drury (five carries for 11 yards and two catches for 30 yards and two TDs), Dirks (one catch for 15 yards), Tyler Ridlon (one catch for 8 yards), Odland (one carry for 5 yards), Steffen (two carries for 1 yard) and Tretbar (three completions for 40 yards and one TD). Padilla also kicked two extra points.
Other major contributors on defense were Odland (24 points), Forrest Drury (10 points), Hovelsrud (8 points), Vaadeland (8 points), Spears (7 points), Hartig (7 points) and Tretbar (6 points).
Also tallying points on defense were Belfiori, Kniss, Atkins, Barr, Fritze, Abraham, Schmaus, Free, Just, Steffen, Crist, O'Hern, Borger, Tyler Ridlon, Padilla and Hemenway. Atkins received the Kip Gauldin Leadership Award.
"Our seniors built a good foundation for the program. They were good leaders and good role models. They dedicated themselves to football and played hard the whole season," said Morris. "We were a young team this year. A lot of juniors and sophomores played a lot of minutes. Our seniors are going to be missed, but we have a good group of players coming back."
With several underclassmen returning to starting roles and with the addition of 18 players from this year's freshmen class, Morris is counting on the Panthers to field another competitive team next fall.
"I'd like to see us continue to make improvement and become a more disciplined and fundamentally sound football team," said Morris. "I think we're going to be competitive again next year. I'd like us to go .500 or better next year. The key to doing that is having the kids spend time in the weight room and dedicating themselves to the football program. I'm looking forward to next year."