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Panthers fulfill goal with trip to Dome

Cory Gartner received the Gary Rehn Award (Most Valuable Player) and Kip Gauldin Leadership Award in helping the Park Rapids football team advance to the Section 8AAA championship game and finish with a 5-6 record.1 / 2
Rilee Johnson received the Mike McClelland Award (Defensive Most Valuable Player) in helping the Park Rapids football team go 5-6 and reach the Section 8AAA championship game.2 / 2

Having the most balanced offensive attack in school history gave the Park Rapids football team a chance to advance to the state playoffs for the first time in almost three decades.

The Panthers set a school record by passing for 1,551 yards and added 2,505 yards rushing in going 5-6 and advancing to the Section 8AAA championship game at the Fargodome. That marked the first appearance in a section title game for the Panthers since 1985.

"From Day 1, our goal was to get to the Dome," said Park Rapids head coach Aaron Morris. "I knew we'd be competitive. I knew we wouldn't overpower anybody, but I knew we'd be faster than anybody. We had a lot of talent and a lot of speed and we used that to our advantage. Getting to the Dome was quite an accomplishment for this team. We had a fantastic year."

In the season openers, the Panthers struggled offensively against two of the state's best teams in a 27-6 loss to Hawley and a 34-12 loss to Perham. Park Rapids was held to 226 total yards and had three turnovers against Hawley and followed by gaining 226 yards and turning the ball over five times against Perham. Hawley compiled 391 yards in offense while Perham ran up 426 yards. The Panthers battled to a 0-0 halftime tie against Hawley and trailed Perham 13-6 at the half before being outscored 48-12 in the second half in those games.

Hawley ended the season rated No. 5 in the state Class AA poll and went on to win the Section 8AA title and qualify for the state playoffs while Perham ended the season rated No. 5 in the state Class AAA poll and defeated Park Rapids 51-26 to win the Section 8AAA title and advance to the state playoffs.

A record-setting performance in the fourth quarter against Crookston turned the season around. Despite losing that game, the Panthers scored a school-record 32 points in the fourth quarter as Crookston held on for a 53-46 victory. The Panthers compiled 569 yards in offense in that game and broke school records for offensive plays (101) and first downs (31). Park Rapids, which turned the ball over five times, trailed 38-14 entering the fourth quarter before rallying.

Compiling 471 yards in offense sparked a 54-12 win over Pequot Lakes in Week 4. The Panthers, who led 27-6 at halftime, forced eight turnovers and allowed 220 yards for their first win of the season.

Park Rapids defeated Thief River Falls 41-35 in Week 5 behind 450 yards in total offense. That marked the first win over the Prowlers since 1996. TRF compiled 360 yards in the loss in a game that was tied 14-14 at the half.

Detroit Lakes jumped out to a 33-14 halftime lead en route to a 40-22 win in Week 6. The Panthers racked up 346 yards in offense, but allowed 426 yards to the Lakers, who ended the season rated No. 3 in the state Class AAAA poll. Detroit Lakes went on to win the Section 8AAAA title to advance to the state playoffs. In addition to Park Rapids, only Perham scored more than 20 points against the Lakers during the regular season.

A 13-10 win over East Grand Forks in Week 7 proved crucial in helping the Panthers reach their goal of playing for a section title in the Fargodome. The Panthers held EGF to only 169 yards in offense while compiling 219 yards offensively. Park Rapids trailed 7-0 at the half and 10-0 with 4:52 to play before rallying for the win.

A muddy field at Roseau prevented the Panthers from ending the regular season with a .500 record. The Panthers were held to only 199 yards while allowing 233 in a 16-6 loss.

Despite that loss, the Panthers received the No. 2 seed for the section playoffs and took advantage of home field by scoring 89 points in the first two playoff games.

Big plays sparked the Panthers in a 48-6 win over No. 7 Staples-Motley in the playoff opener. The Panthers had six scoring plays of at least 28 yards (including touchdowns of 93, 75, 75 and 54 yards) and finished with 472 rushing yards. Park Rapids, which led 21-6 at halftime before outscoring the Cardinals 27-0 in the second half, didn't have a first down in the first half and had only three first downs in the game.

Passing for 236 yards and adding 213 yards on the ground helped the Panthers avenge the loss to Roseau as 449 yards in offense sparked a 41-14 victory over the Rams in the section semifinals. Park Rapids built a 34-6 lead at the half while the defense held Roseau to 256 yards in the game.

The Panthers' quest to qualify for the state playoffs for the first time since 1984 fell short as Perham scored 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to seal a 51-26 victory at the Fargodome. Park Rapids compiled 376 yards in offense, but allowed 593 yards in ending the season with a 5-6 record. Perham led 25-6 at the half before the Panthers rallied to within 31-26 in the third quarter.

For the season, the Panthers scored 315 points (28.6 per game) while allowing 299 (27.2 per game). The Panthers turned the ball over 21 times while forcing 27 turnovers. Park Rapids averaged 368.7 yards per game while giving up an average of 341.4 yards a game. The Panthers had 18 plays of at least 40 yards with six plays of at least 75 yards.

Leading the Panthers to their most successful season since going 7-3 in 2007 were the fulltime starters: seniors David Dirks, Zach Eystad, Cory Gartner, Chris Goplerud, Kyle Goplerud, Ian Johnson, Kyle Ritter, Andy Waller and Kody Walsh; and juniors Kurt Fritze, Rilee Johnson, Noah MacPherson, Tyler McCollum, Nate Rak, Josh Severtson and Connor Smythe.

Chris Goplerud, Ritter, Waller, Fritze, Rak and Smythe excelled on the offensive line in helping the Panthers put up their impressive offensive numbers.

Ian Johnson (140 carries for 905 yards and 10 TDs), Gartner (102 carries for 600 yards and seven TDs), Eystad (46 carries for 371 yards and six TDs), Dirks (84 carries for 283 yards and three TDs) and Walsh (15 carries for 108 yards) led the Panthers' balanced rushing attack. Johnson scored 93 points for third in school history behind Mike Quinn's totals of 98 in 1977 and 96 in 1976. Eystad scored 60 points, Gartner scored 52 points, MacPherson scored 34 points, Kyle Goplerud scored 32 points and Dirks scored 24 points.

McCollum broke the school record for passing yards in a season by completing 84 of 202 passes for 1,445 yards and 15 TDs. McCollum broke Rocky Donatelle's records of 77 completions and 1,184 yards in 2005. McCollum also broke the single-game passing record with 236 yards against Roseau to break Donatelle's record of 224 against Crookston in 2005.

Kyle Goplerud also broke a school record with 26 receptions for 537 yards and five TDs. The previous record for receiving yards in a season was 449 yards by Tim Annett in 1975. MacPherson tied a school record with 29 receptions for 432 yards and five TDs. Scott Hagen also had 29 receptions in 1972. Ian Johnson added 14 catches for 207 yards, Eystad had five receptions for 169 yards, Gartner caught five passes for 104 yards and Dirks had six receptions for 65 yards.

Eystad returned 33 kickoffs for 589 yards with one TD while Severtson returned seven kickoffs for 124 yards. Gartner led the Panthers with 16 punt returns for 101 yards while Eystad had four punt returns for 46 yards.

Defensively, the Panthers were led by Rilee Johnson and MacPherson at inside linebacker; Chris Goplerud, Kyle Goplerud, Rak, Fritze and Walsh up front; Waller, Dirks and Severtson at outside linebacker; and Ian Johnson, Eystad and Gartner in the secondary.

Rilee Johnson led the team with 36 solo tackles, 88 assisted tackles and four forced fumbles. MacPherson followed with 32 solo tackles, 64 assisted tackles and three interceptions. Chris Goplerud had 20 solo tackles and 47 assists. Gartner had 25 solo tackles, 41 assists and three fumble recoveries. Waller had 16 solo tackles, 44 assists, two fumble recoveries and four interceptions. Kyle Goplerud tallied 16 solo tackles and 38 assists. Dirks had 19 solo tackles and 33 assists. Fritze had 13 solo tackles, 37 assists and two quarterback sacks. Rak had 15 solo tackles, 34 assists and two sacks. Walsh had 10 solo tackles, 35 assists and three sacks. Eystad had seven solo tackles, 37 assists and four interceptions. Severtson had six solo tackles and 26 assists and returned an interception for a touchdown. Ian Johnson had five solo tackles, 19 assists and two interceptions.

Ian Johnson also averaged 38.4 yards on 42 kickoffs while Waller averaged 29.5 yards on 43 punts.

Gartner received the team's Gary Rehn Award (Most Valuable Player) and Kip Gauldin Leadership Award while Rilee Johnson received the Mike McClelland Award (Defensive Most Valuable Player). McCollum was named the Most Improved Player.

Ian Johnson, Waller, MacPherson and McCollum earned Heart O'Lakes Conference honors while Dirks, Eystad, Gartner and Chris Goplerud received all-conference honorable mention honors.

Also contributing on offense were sophomores Jon Burlingame (10 carries for 74 yards and a TD), Ben Baumgartner (23 carries for 52 yards and one reception for 25 yards), Jaden Olson (seven carries for 26 yards), Jordan McCollum (three carries for 30 yards), Riley Massie (seven carries for 26 yards) and Derek Porozinski (two receptions for 18 yards and a TD).

"The kids bought into the program. They played with confidence and they found a way to win, which was a huge step for us," said Morris. "Everybody did his role. The nice thing was the other team couldn't key on one player. Every game we had someone different make big plays for us. The kids worked hard to be in shape and that paid off in the third and fourth quarters. It was fun to see the kids excited about football."

In order for the Panthers to continue that trend next season, the younger players will have to step in and fill the roles of this year's senior crew. Morris is confident the younger players will do just that.

"These seniors meant a lot. They sacrificed a lot to help build the program. They were good leaders, both on and off the field, and they showed the younger kids that hard work pays off," said Morris. "We're going to have a good senior crew next year. We're going to need next year's juniors to step up and fill key roles and next year's sophomores will be relied on to be spot players. These kids are dedicated to getting better. There's a bright future for Park Rapids football. We lose a lot of key seniors, but I look for us to be better than a .500 team next year. Our goal next year is to get one step past the Dome and to the state playoffs."