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Quickness is key to Panthers' success

Leading the Park Rapids football team this season will be seniors (front from left) Kyle Ritter, Andy Waller, Johnny Bravo, Cory Gartner, Kyle Goplerud; (back) Zach Nash, Kody Walsh, Ian Johnson, David Dirks, Zach Eystad, Chris Goplerud.

Aaron Morris is counting on team quickness to produce quick points and more victories for the Park Rapids football team this fall.

With only one player weighing more than 200 pounds, the Panthers don't have the personnel to pound out victories.

Instead, Morris is instituting an up-tempo offense to offset the opponent's size advantage.

"This is going to be a different brand of football for Park Rapids," said Morris, who begins his fourth season as the Panthers' head coach. "We're not very big, so we're going to use a no-huddle offense and play up-tempo. We have a lot of speed and we're going to use that speed to our advantage. We're very inexperienced, but the kids are learning the system quickly and they're excited about the season. I'm very happy with the progress we've made. It's going to be a fun year."

In addition to a lack of size, the Panthers don't have a lot of experience on the offensive and defensive lines.

The Panthers return only eight players on both offense and defense that saw extensive varsity time last season. Only one of those returns in the trenches as the Panthers try to improve on last year's 3-7 record.

Leading the Panthers this season are the returning veterans: seniors David Dirks, Zach Eystad, Cory Gartner, Chris Goplerud, Ian Johnson, Andy Waller and Kody Walsh; and junior Noah MacPherson.

Offensively, Johnson (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) returns at quarterback while Dirks (5-11, 195), Eystad (5-11, 165) and Gartner (6-0, 180) return at running back. Walsh (5-11, 175) will play fullback. Goplerud (6-0, 195) is the only lineman back and will return at guard. MacPherson (6-2, 185) is back at end. Waller (6-2, 175) will move from end to tackle.

Johnson completed 19 of 77 passes for 329 yards and one TD with 10 interceptions and rushed 89 times for 365 yards and six TDs last fall. Gartner was fourth on the team with 27 carries for 135 yards and one TD and returned 10 punts for 68 yards. Dirks rushed 17 times for 24 yards and Eystad had two carries for 24 yards. Walsh ran the ball five times for 14 yards. MacPherson was second on the team with four receptions for 84 yards. Dirks caught two passes for 37 yards, Gartner had two receptions for 10 yards and Waller hauled in a 10-yard reception.

Leading the defense will be Goplerud at tackle; Walsh at end; Waller, Dirks and MacPherson at linebacker; and Gartner, Johnson and Eystad at cornerback.

Goplerud had seven solo tackles, 64 assisted tackles and two quarterback sacks last season. Gartner had six solo tackles, 63 assists and one recovered fumble. Waller compiled three solo tackles, 45 assists and one interception. Dirks had four solo tackles, 36 assists and one recovered fumble. Eystad and Walsh had one solo tackle and 12 assists each. Johnson had one solo tackle, six assists and one interception.

Providing the leadership for the Panthers last season were the senior crew of Forrest Drury, Brandon Ritter, Cole Tretbar, Zach Steffen, Levi Erickson, Cory Odland, Brock Fritze, Caleb Abraham, Logan Schmaus and Jeff Hemenway.

Drury led the offense with 176 carries for 874 yards and nine TDs and added four receptions for 61 yards and a TD while returning 19 kickoffs for 388 yards. Erickson rushed 60 times for 319 yards and four TDs and returned seven kickoffs for 112 yards. Odland caught four passes for 122 yards and returned 13 kickoffs for 266 yards and 10 punts for 63 yards. Ritter, Fritze, Tretbar, Schmaus and Hemenway provided the blocks up front.

Last year's seniors also led the defense with Ritter (12 solo tackles, 88 assists), Drury (16 solo tackles, 78 assists) and Tretbar (15 solo tackles, 72 assists) leading the way. Also playing key roles on defense were Steffen (five solo tackles, 58 assists), Erickson (seven solo tackles, 50 assists, four forced fumbles), Odland (seven solo tackles 37 assists, four interceptions), Abraham (five solo tackles, 25 assists, six sacks) and Schmaus (23 assists).

Looking to fill those spots will be seniors Zach Nash (6-1, 170 running back/linebacker), Kyle Ritter (6-1, 200 lineman), Kyle Goplerud (6-2, 190 end/lineman) and Johnny Bravo (5-10, 160 end/lineman); juniors Isaiah Hensel (5-11, 175 end/cornerback), Rilee Johnson (6-2, 165 end/safety), Tyler McCollum (6-2, 170 quarterback/safety), Kurt Fritze (6-3, 200 lineman), Nate Rak (6-0, 180 lineman), Spencer Adolphson (5-7, 140 lineman), Connor Smythe (5-11, 160 lineman), Kalvin Hagan (5-11, 155 end/lineman), Josh Severtson (5-10, 155 running back, cornerback) and Caleb Gorder (5-10, 175 lineman); and sophomores Jordan McCollum (5-11, 160 quarterback/linebacker), Jon Burlingame (6-0, 155 running back/linebacker), Garrett Bruce (5-9, 130 end/cornerback), Ben Baumgartner (5-7, 150 running back/linebacker), Riley Massie (5-7, 135 end/cornerback), Derek Porozinski (6-1, 160 end/lineman), Alex Boyd (6-0, 135 end/safety), Jaden Olson (5-10, 150 fullback/linebacker), Brandon Johnson (5-9, 170 lineman), Zach Tretbar (6-1, 165 lineman), Jeff Dickinson (5-6, 190 lineman), Zach Hagen (5-10, 170 lineman), Cody Holland (5-10, 155 fullback/linebacker), Conner Farrell (6-0, 160 end/lineman) and Tristan Hendrickson (5-11, 240 lineman).

On offense, Smythe will start at center with Ritter at a guard and Fritze at a tackle. Providing depth on the line will be Rak, Tretbar, Brandon Johnson, Dickinson and Hagen. Rilee Johnson, Tyler McCollum and Kyle Goplerud will provide depth at the receiver spots while Baumgartner and Burlingame will provide depth at running back. Tyler McCollum will be the back-up quarterback.

Defensively, Rilee Johnson returns at safety after missing almost the entire season last fall with an injury. Tyler McCollum will also see time at safety. Severtson will be a back-up at cornerback while Nash, Baumgartner and Burlingame will provide depth at linebacker. The other tackles will be Ritter, Adolphson, Rak and Tretbar while Kyle Goplerud and Fritze will join Chris Goplerud and Waller at end.

Gartner (who averaged 42.8 yards on 18 kickoffs) and Waller will handle the kickoff duties. Waller (who averaged 31 yards on 27 punts) will do the punting. Dirks, Eystad and Baumgartner will handle kickoff and punt returns.

"I think we're going to surprise teams with our speed and up-tempo style," said Morris, who will be assisted by Joe Grimes, Zach Holsman, Chuck Schmitz, Aron Moses, Bob Kapsner, Mike Baumgartner and J.T. Luther. "We're going to look to put a lot of points on the board. We're going to use a lot of shotgun and look to pass about 40 percent of the time. We're going to open the game up and let our athleticism take over. Defensively, we're going to use our quickness to do a lot of stunting and blitzing to keep the other team guessing. We don't have a lot of size, but we have kids who like to hit."

Last year, the Panthers went 2-6 during the regular season to receive the No. 5 seed for the Section 8AAA playoffs. Park Rapids defeated No. 4 East Grand Forks 13-10 in the first round before falling to No. 1 Perham 28-14 in the section semifinals to end the year with a 3-7 mark. Perham defeated Pequot Lakes 10-3 in the section title game.

Perham is considered the team to beat in the section, which has a new look this season. Crookston, Pequot Lakes, Roseau and Staples-Motley return with Park Rapids and Perham. East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls moved to Section 8AAAA while Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton moved in to form a seven-team section. The Panthers return to the North Division of the Heart O'Lakes Conference with Crookston, Detroit Lakes, East Grand Forks, Pequot Lakes, Perham and Thief River Falls.

Even though the Panthers have another tough schedule, Morris is looking for his team to finish at least at .500 and challenge to host a section playoff game.

"We have a tough schedule, but I think we should be at .500 or better if we come with our 'A' game every week," said Morris. "I think we're ahead of where we were last year. The kids worked hard to get stronger and quicker in the summer and they're ready to get after it. We're not going to overpower anybody, but we're going to be more athletic and quicker than any team we see and our conditioning is going to pay off in the fourth quarter. I think we can compete with anybody. We're going to be a fun team to watch."