Panthers give Fergus Falls a battle on Senior Night

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In the first half of Friday night's game against Fergus Falls, head coach Aaron Morris saw the potential he expected from the Park Rapids football team this season.

The Panthers were the heavy underdog against a Fergus Falls team that stood atop the Midwest Red District standings at 5-0. The Otters had won five games in a row, outscoring their opponents 160-61 during that stretch. Meanwhile, Park Rapids was seeking its first win of the season and entered this game by being outscored 153-20 in the last three games, including 98-12 in the first half.

However, an inspired Park Rapids squad scored the first touchdown and battled to a 14-14 tie late in the first half on Senior Night before the Otters pulled away for a 42-14 victory at Vern Weekley Field.

"I know the potential these young men have and if they are able to put a full game together, they can compete with anyone. They came out with confidence and a different attitude. I was very proud of their team effort and I hope they were able to see their potential," said Morris. "We have great practices and we have talked all year about carrying it over to the games. It was awesome to see their confidence. Now we just need to play like that for two halves."

After both teams opened the game by exchanging punts, the Panthers opened the scoring with a 14-play, 65-yard drive. Nathan David hauled in a 6-yard pass on fourth-and-5 and the Otters were whistled for a personal-foul penalty as the Panthers reached the Fergus Falls 39. Zach Severtson hit Jason Haas on an 18-yard halfback pass and gained 5 yards on fourth-and-3 at the 8 to set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Tristin Persons. Jens Anderson hit Severtson on the two-point conversion as the Panthers led 8-0 with 4:22 to play in the first quarter.

Fergus Falls responded with an eight-play, 74-yard scoring drive as a 31-yard catch by Matthew Johnson, a 5-yard run by Aaron Billings plus a facemask penalty on fourth-and-1 at the Park Rapids 30, and 12-yard run by Billings led to an 8-yard TD run by Nathan Rund. Noah Raitz kicked the extra point to make it 8-7 with 25 seconds left in the opening quarter.

The Otters' defense forced a punt on the ensuing series and Fergus Falls quickly extended the lead on the next play when Rund hauled in a 46-yard TD pass from Harrison Christensen. The kick by Raitz gave Fergus Falls a 14-8 lead with 11:33 to play in the first half.

Park Rapids moved the ball on the next series as Anderson hit Haas for 24 yards, found David on a 10-yard route and connected with Persons on a 13-yard pass. However, that drive stalled and the Panthers were forced to punt.

Park Rapids' defense forced the Otters to punt on their next two series, which resulted in the Panthers tying the game. A partially blocked punt gave Park Rapids possession at the Fergus Falls 27. Five plays later, Anderson hit Severtson on a 10-yard scoring route. A 12-yard catch by David set up that score, which tied the game at 14-14 with 4:33 to go in the first half.

Again the Otters responded to take the lead for good with a quick two-play scoring drive. Eli Sorum's 35-yard kickoff return set up a 35-yard pass from Christensen to Marshall King. Raitz booted the extra point for a 21-14 lead with 3:43 remaining before halftime.

Anderson connected with Persons for 29 yards and Severtson for 15 yards as the Panthers marched to the Fergus Falls 28. After Anderson was sacked for a 10-yard loss, an interception by Nathan Zierdan at the 23 ended that drive.

Park Rapids threatened again before the break as an 8-yard catch by Persons and 9-yard catch by Haas drove the Panthers to the Fergus Falls 29. But a holding penalty ended the half.

"We caught some passes early and the players just built off of that," said Morris. "We have to eliminate mentalities, turnovers and big plays. That has been an issue all year. We make some big plays then turn around and give the momentum right back. We have to find a way to keep that on our side. We have to figure out a way to overcome mistakes and play through adversity."

The second half was dominated by Fergus Falls as the Otters scored on their first three possessions while holding the Panthers to nine plays and forcing three punts on the home team's first three series.

Rund opened the scoring in the second half with a 4-yard reception to cap a nine-play, 64-yard drive. Johnson hauled in a 17-yard pass and Rund had a 21-yard catch to spark that series, which pushed the lead to 28-14 at the 7:35 mark.

After forcing the Panthers to punt, Fergus Falls went 27 yards in five plays with Rund's punt return to the Park Rapids 27 and King's 9-yard catch leading to a 7-yard TD run by Rund. Raitz kicked his fifth extra point as the Otters led 35-14 with 5:40 to play in the third quarter.

Fergus Falls concluded the scoring on Rund's 21-yard TD reception with 11:55 to play. Billings followed a 12-yard run with a 2-yard run on fourth-and-2 at the Park Rapids 29 to keep that drive going.

Park Rapids put together a late scoring threat when an 18-yard run by Persons, a defensive holding penalty and a 20-yard run by Persons led to a first-and-goal inside the 10. That drive stalled at the 4 as the Otters ran out the final 55 seconds.

Anderson completed 16 of 29 passes for 197 yards before leaving the game in the third quarter with an injury as the Panthers' offense finished with 249 yards. Haas (four catches for 68 yards), Persons (four catches for 56 yards), Severtson (four catches for 34 yards) and David (five catches for 32 yards) led the way as seven different receivers caught passes. Park Rapids was held to 46 yards rushing with Persons rushing 16 times for 53 yards. The Panthers ran 72 plays and compiled 18 first downs in falling to 0-6 in the district and 0-7 overall.

Fergus Falls compiled 315 yards as Christensen completed 10 of 15 passes for 197 yards with Rund making four catches for 92 yards. Rund also rushed seven times for 37 yards in accounting for five touchdowns. Billings rushed 10 times for 43 yards as the Otters finished with 118 yards on the ground. The Otters ran 58 plays and had 16 first downs in improving to 6-1 on the season.

"We need our secondary to do their job and trust each other. They try to do too much and then they are not doing their job. It is all about trust. They have gotten better, but we need to fix that," said Morris. "Our run defense is not bad. We just need to fly to the ball. We sit back and wait for the ball carrier instead of meeting him in the hole. We need to do a better job attacking the ball."

In Friday night's other district games, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton edged Perham 35-32, Pequot Lakes blanked Thief River Falls 35-0 and Detroit Lakes defeated East Grand Forks 33-6. Fergus Falls leads the district standings at 6-0 while D-G-F is 5-1. Pequot Lakes and Perham sit at 4-2 while Detroit Lakes and East Grand Forks are 2-4. Thief River Falls fell to 1-5.

D-G-F is now 4-1 against Section 8AAA opponents and 5-2 overall to join Perham (3-1 in section games) and Pequot Lakes (3-1 in section games) atop the standings. East Grand Forks is 2-2 in the section and 2-5 overall while Thief River Falls is 1-4 in the section and 1-6 overall. Park Rapids is 0-4 against section teams.

The Panthers will end the regular season with a game at Perham in preparation for the section playoffs.

"Perham is a very good team that has a lot of weapons. They run a variety of offenses, so we have to make some big plays and tackle," said Morris. "If we can play two halves like we did in the first half against Fergus Falls, we will be in the game. We just need to limit our penalties, turnovers and giving up the big plays. Getting a win to end the regular season would be huge, but Perham is going to come out of the gates and make us work for it."

Fergus Falls 7 14 14 7...42

Park Rapids 8 6 0 0...14

SCORING

PR--Persons 4 run (Severtson pass from Anderson)

FF--Rund 8 run (Raitz kick)

FF--Rund 46 pass from Christensen (Raitz kick)

PR--Severtson 10 pass from Anderson (run failed)

FF--King 35 pass from Christensen (Raitz kick)

FF--Rund 4 pass from Christensen (Raitz kick)

FF--Rund 7 run (Raitz kick)

FF--Rund 21 pass from Christensen (Raitz kick)

OFFENSIVE STATISTICS

RUSHING. Fergus Falls: Billings 100-43, Rund 7-37, Jacobs 9-20. Park Rapids: Persons 16-53, Klein 2-6, Dravis 1-2, Severtson 2-(-4), Anderson 8-(-11).

PASSING. Fergus Falls: Christensen 10-15-0 for 197 yards. Park Rapids: Anderson 16-29-2 for 174 yards; Severtson 1-3-0 for 18 yards; Ja. Haas 2-8-0 for 6 yards; Je. Haas 1-3-0 for 5 yards.

RECEIVING. Fergus Falls: Rund 4-92, Johnson 3-53, King 2-44, Pearson 1-8. Park Rapids: Ja. Haas 4-68, Persons 4-56, Severtson 4-34, David 5-32, Hoyt 1-7, Klein 1-5, Je. Haas 1-1.