Panthers persevere through adversity
Aaron Morris doesn't believe a successful season hinges solely on wins and losses.
The head coach of the Park Rapids football team wasn't planning on his team going 0-9 this season. That doesn't mean the season wasn't a success in some ways.
"A lot of people will look at our record and think we had a bad season. It was hard losing every game, but I was very happy with the kids' attitude," said Morris. "This group had a positive attitude, worked hard and never gave up. They battled every game and gave it their all. The scores might not show it, but they got better every game."
For the season, the Panthers were outscored 341-72 as Park Rapids averaged 171 yards and 8.0 points a game while allowing 394 yards and 37.9 points a night. The Panthers had 113 first downs while turning the ball over 27 times. Park Rapids' opponents racked up 173 first downs while turning the ball over only 12 times.
Morris put in a new offense this season, which took time to develop. The Panthers averaged 90 yards passing a game while the running game struggled as Park Rapids averaged only 81 yards on the ground a night.
"We just weren't consistent enough on offense. We knew it would take a while for the kids to understand the new offense, but it took longer than I thought. There were times where we looked great on offense and then we'd turn the ball over," said Morris. "Our defense played well, but they were on the field way too much. We relied on our defense a lot and they got worn out and beat up. It was a challenge keeping the offense on the field. We had too many 3-and-outs and way too many turnovers. We just didn't put a full mistake-free game together all season."
In the season opener, United North Central's defense forced three interceptions and held the Panthers to only 101 yards in offense in a 22-0 victory. UNC, which entered the season tied for the No. 16 spot in the state Class AA poll, compiled 260 yards in offense to spark the win.
Five turnovers cost the Panthers in Week 2 in a 7-6 loss at Thief River Falls. Park Rapids finished with 188 yards in offense while holding the Prowlers to 197 yards.
Two blocked punts and a safety sparked East Grand Forks to a 26-0 halftime lead en route to a 32-14 victory in Week 3. The Panthers had 184 yards in offense while allowing 287 yards all on the ground.
Detroit Lakes rushed for 516 yards and compiled 581 yards in the game in a 48-6 victory in Week 4. Park Rapids, which trailed 28-6 at the half, turned the ball over twice and finished with 153 yards in offense.
Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton relied on 519 offensive yards for a 49-6 victory in Week 5 as the Rebels jumped out to a 35-0 halftime advantage. Park Rapids was held to 151 yards while turning the ball over four times.
Pequot Lakes jumped out to a 35-0 halftime lead in coasting to a 55-8 victory in Week 6. The Patriots finished with 441 yards in offense while forcing four Park Rapids turnovers. The Panthers ended with 162 yards in offense.
Park Rapids played its best half of the season against Fergus Falls in Week 7, battling to a 14-14 tie and a 21-14 deficit at the half. Fergus Falls controlled the second half in a 42-14 victory. Fergus Falls finished with 315 yards in offense while the Panthers had 249 yards in offense with two turnovers.
In the regular-season finale, the Panthers racked up a season-high 274 yards in offense. But five turnovers helped Perham turn a 33-6 halftime lead into a 40-6 victory. Perham compiled 557 yards in offense with Jenson Beachy breaking a school record with 435 passing yards and six touchdown passes.
Pequot Lakes, Perham and D-G-F went 4-1 in Section 8AAA games while East Grand Forks was 2-3, Thief River Falls went 1-4 and Park Rapids finished at 0-5. In the Midwest Red District standings, Fergus Falls finished at 7-0 while Pequot Lakes, Perham and D-G-F went 5-2. Detroit Lakes finished at 3-4 while East Grand Forks (2-5), Thief River Falls (1-6) and Park Rapids (0-7) followed.
For the Section 8AAA playoffs, the Panthers received the No. 6 seed and saw their season end with a 45-12 loss to No. 3 D-G-F. Park Rapids trailed 19-12 at the half before the Rebels took control after the intermission. D-G-F had 484 yards in offense while the Panthers finished with 188 yards in offense and a pair of turnovers. Pequot Lakes defeated Perham 56-22 in the section championship game.
Five of the Panthers' opponents were rated in the state polls at some point in the season. In addition to UNC, Detroit Lakes entered the season rated No. 18 in the Class AAAA poll while Perham (which was rated as high as No. 5 before finishing at No. 11), Pequot Lakes (which ended the season rated No. 12) and D-G-F (which was rated as high as No. 10) were listed in the state Class AAA poll during the season.
"We knew coming in that if we didn't get some wins early that it would be a tough go," said Morris. "The last part of our schedule was tough, but the kids didn't quit. They kept working hard and kept getting better. If we would have played like we did at the end of the year at the beginning of the year, we would have won a couple of those games early."
Leading the Panthers this season were seniors Josh Baker, Matt Benson, Marque Cook, Bradley Graham, Jason Haas, Blake Higgins, Zach Hocking, Marty Roesler and Zach Severtson; juniors Nathan David, Cody Dravis, Spencer Fritze, Zach Fritze, Jack Hensel, Payton Hill, Cameron Hoyt, Brendan Kruchowski, Tristin Persons, Jake Reish, Kian Scott and Jacob Stewart; and sophomores Jens Anderson, Marcus Benson, Jeff Haas, Joey Klein and Shawn Ohm.
Offensively, Jason Haas and Anderson handled the quarterbacking duties with Persons as the main running back. Spencer Fritze, David and Severtson played the slot positions with Jason Haas, David and Hoyt playing receiver. The line featured Hensel and Marcus Benson at center; Graham, Kruchowski and Matt Benson at guard; and Hill and Hocking at tackle. Klein, Spencer Fritze, Severtson, Zach Fritze, Matt Benson and Persons handled kickoff and punt returns.
Persons led the Panthers' running game with 96 carries for 307 yards and two touchdowns while Severtson had 146 yards on 26 carries with two TDs. Jason Haas had 70 carries for 125 yards and two TDs, Dravis gained 114 yards on 29 carries and Anderson had 70 yards on 31 carries with one TD.
Anderson completed 43 of 87 passes for 355 yards with three TDs and six interceptions while Jason Haas completed 43 of 117 passes for 352 yards with one TD and 11 interceptions. Persons (18 receptions for 155 yards), David (18 receptions for 154 yards), Severtson (18 receptions for 126 yards and two TDs), Jason Haas (11 receptions for 146 yards and one TD), Dravis (six receptions for 95 yards), Hoyt (10 receptions for 58 yards and one TD), Reish (four receptions for 35 yards) and Spencer Fritze (five receptions for 26 yards) were the primary receivers.
Klein returned 14 kickoffs for 117 yards, Spencer Fritze had eight kickoff returns for 65 yards, Severtson had seven kickoff returns for 81 yards, Zach Fritze returned six kickoffs for 106 yards, Persons had three kickoff returns for 43 yards and Matt Benson returned four kickoffs for 40 yards. Severtson returned 10 punts for 69 yards.
On defense, Cook, Roesler and Hensel played the end spots with Hocking, Scott and Stewart at the tackles. Dravis, Kruchowski, Baker and David were the linebackers with Jason Haas, Higgins and Persons at cornerback. Spencer Fritze and Severtson played safety. Ohm handled kickoffs while Severtson and Zach Fritze were the punters.
Dravis led the Panthers in defensive points with 115 with 24 solo tackles, 63 assists and one recovered fumble. Kruchowski was second with 22 solo tackles and 48 assists for 96 points. Spencer Fritze had 16 solo tackles, 46 assists, one forced fumble and one recovered fumble for 87 points. Severtson finished with 80 points behind 13 solo tackles, 44 assists, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and two interceptions. Cook had 10 solo tackles, 35 assists, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one interception and two sacks for 70 points. Jason Haas (10 solo tackles, 29 assists, one forced fumble, one interception) had 64 points, Baker (17 solo tackles, 20 assists) had 54 points, Persons (12 solo tackles, seven assists, eight knocked-down passes) had 47 points, and Hocking (nine solo tackles, 23 assists) and Hensel (12 solo tackles, 19 assists) had 43 points each. Also contributing double digits in points on defense were Anderson (33), Scott (26), Hill (26), Jeff Haas (23), David (22), Stewart (19), Zach Fritze (16), Roesler (16) and Higgins (13). Ohm averaged 40.1 yards on 21 kickoffs while Severtson averaged 31.3 yards on 41 punts and Zach Fritze averaged 25.9 yards on 12 punts.
Persons received the Gary Rehn Award as the team's MVP while Dravis received the Mike McClelland Award as the Panthers' top defensive player. Hocking received the Kip Gauldin Leadership Award and a Coaches Award while Jeff Haas was named Most Improved. Hocking was an all-district player while Jeff Haas received all-district honorable mention honors.
Rounding out the varsity roster this season were juniors Preston Renneberg, Rylley Clark, Kaleb Vang, Angel Guajardo, Jerry Engst and Christoffer Madson; sophomores Keaton Koskela, Max Crist, Dan Walsh, Eli Bessman, Hunter Brandt, Troy Adams, Kolby Brandt, Hunter Carnell, Joe Stachowski, Gabe Arola and Austin Hogdgen; and freshmen Tate Usher, Chaise Persons, Lane Monaghan and Caleb David.
"Our seniors are going to be hard to replace. They were great leaders who showed up and worked hard every practice and game. I'm very proud of their effort all season," said Morris. "We have a lot of good kids coming back. These kids don't want to go 0-9 again. We've got to hit the weight room and become stronger and quicker. The kids coming back gained valuable varsity experience and they now know what it takes to play at this level. I expect them to do everything they can to get better and become better athletes and football players. My expectations are to be competitive in the section next year. We've got to be more consistent running the ball. If we can get our running game going and if we can put a full game together, we're going to be a tough team to beat next year."