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Panthers look to take step forward

Leading the Park Rapids football team this season will be seniors (front from left) Tristan Hendrickson, Zach Hagen, Brandon Johnson, Jeff Dickinson; (middle) Riley Massie, Ben Baumgartner, Dylan Weaver, Colin Mack; (back) Zach Tretbar, Jordan McCollum, Derek Porozinski, Jon Burlingame.

     Aaron Morris is counting on the Park Rapids football team to take that next step and qualify for the state playoffs for the first time since 1984.

     Two years ago, the Panthers reached the Section 8AAA title game before losing to Perham 51-26 to cap off a 5-6 season.

     Last year, the Panthers went 6-2 during the regular season and earned the No. 1 seed for the Section 8AAA playoffs. Park Rapids held a 26-0 lead late in the third quarter before No. 4 Pequot Lakes rallied for a 34-26 semifinal victory as the Panthers ended with a 6-3 record and were rated No. 8 in the final regular-season Class AAA poll.

     Morris is counting on this year’s team to produce another winning season and make a run at winning that elusive section title.

     “These kids want to win. These kids worked hard in the off-season, which shows they are committed to being competitive and getting to the next level,” said Morris, who will be assisted by defensive coordinator Joe Grimes and line coaches Josh Cook and Chuck Schmitz. “I feel we can play with anybody on our schedule. These kids want to get to the Fargodome and win the section title.”

     Duplicating last year’s record will be tough since 12 key players will have to be replaced. Heading that list are Heart O’Lakes Conference players Noah MacPherson, Kurt Fritze, Tyler McCollum, Nate Rak, Josh Severtson, Drew Bade and Jamie Stewart. Also graduating were Spencer Adolphson, Kalvin Hagan, Rilee Johnson and Connor Smythe while junior Remington Hagan moved.

     Fritze (tackle), Rak (tackle), Stewart (guard) and Smythe (center) provided the blocks for an offense that averaged 259 yards a game. McCollum completed 69 of 170 passes for 1,094 yards and 10 touchdowns with MacPherson (27 receptions for 501 yards and five TDs), Bade (13 receptions for 185 yards), Severtson (six catches for 135 yards and three TDs) and Johnson (three receptions for 22 yards) leading the receivers. Severtson (37 carries for 130 yards), Johnson (21 carries for 115 yards and two TDs), MacPherson (four carries for 94 yards), Remington Hagan (13 carries for 32 yards) and Bade (eight carries for 23 yards) were vital running backs.

     Severtson also returned 10 kickoffs for 275 yards and a TD and seven punts for 82 yards. Remington Hagan returned five kickoffs for 56 yards and MacPherson returned four punts for 23 yards.

     Defensively, that group helped the Panthers allow only 6.6 points a game during the regular season while finishing second among Class AAA teams in scoring defense. Park Rapids’ defense forced 28 turnovers while allowing 255 yards a game.

     MacPherson (inside linebacker) led the team with 144 defensive points, Fritze (tackle) was third with 86 points, Rak (tackle) was fifth with 81 points, Severtson (outside linebacker) was sixth with 74 points, Stewart (end) was eighth with 69 points, Bade (cornerback) was ninth with 54 points, Johnson (inside linebacker) was 11th with 47 points, Remington Hagan (outside linebacker) was 13th with 27 points and Adolphson (tackle) was 15th with 12 points.

     “We lost a lot of talented seniors, but we have the kids ready to step in and do the job,” said Morris. “I told the kids that we’re not rebuilding; we’re reloading. If the kids understand their roles and do their jobs, we’re going to be successful.”

     While last year’s seniors will be tough to replace, Morris has 18 players who saw varsity action returning to provide a solid nucleus.

     Being counted on to lead the Panthers this season are seniors Jon Burlingame (6-0, 180), Ben Baumgartner (5-8, 155), Jeff Dickinson (5-7, 205), Zach Hagen (5-11, 200), Tristan Hendrickson (5-11, 220), Brandon Johnson (5-9, 185), Riley Massie (5-8, 140), Jordan McCollum (6-1, 180), Derek Porozinski (6-2, 190) and Zach Tretbar (6-1, 180); juniors Matt Bade (6-0, 165), Micah Barrett (6-1, 175), Conner Byer (6-2, 170), Damion Hanke (6-0, 200), Isaac Kosel (5-8, 155) and Noah Schulz (6-1, 185); and sophomores Justin Dravis (6-0, 180) and Jarrett Johnson (6-1, 170).

     The Panthers return their two leading rushers in Baumgartner (133 carries for 484 yards and six TDs) and Burlingame (69 carries for 238 yards and three TDs). Bade (19 carries for 32 yards) and McCollum (eight carries for 24 yards before missing the final eight games with an injury) also saw some action in the backfield last season. Looking to provide depth in the backfield are Massie, Dravis, junior Jordan Yliniemi (6-0, 190) and sophomore Ben Garcelon (5-10, 160). Yliniemi rushed 58 times for 241 yards and a TD for United North Central last season.

     McCollum will take over as the starting quarterback with Byer providing depth.

     Baumgartner had 10 receptions for 116 yards while Porozinski returns as a starting tight end after making seven receptions for 109 yards last season. Burlingame (three receptions for 27 yards and a TD), Massie (one reception for 11 yards) and Barrett (one reception for 8 yards) will join Hanke and Weaver as the other primary receivers.

     On the line, only Hagen returns as a starter at guard. Johnson, Dickinson and sophomore Jacob Bittmann (5-9, 220) will compete for the other guard spots. Schulz will start at center with Tretbar, Hendrickson and sophomore Logan Veo (5-0, 260) filling the two tackle spots.

     Baumgartner (three kickoff returns for 96 yards and a TD and one punt return for 16 yards) will return kicks along with Burlingame and Garcelon.

     Also competing for time on offense are seniors Colin Mack (6-0, 160 guard); juniors David Frorath (5-11, 155 wide receiver), Kodi Robbins (6-0, 185 wide receiver), Tristan Breitweser (5-10, 145 running back), Isaac Kosel (5-8, 155 running back), Hunter Utke (5-6, 140 wide receiver) and Jacob Engst (5-10, 140 wide receiver); and sophomores Kenny David (5-8, 150 running back), Jake Dickinson (5-0, 175 quarterback), Logan Johnson (5-0, 145 running back), Kaleb Carlson (5-11, 180 wide receiver), Nolan Booge (5-7, 140 running back), Brandon Day (6-1, 170 running back), Randall Scott (5-9, 175 running back), Riley Cannon (6-2, 230 tackle), Matt Belina (6-0, 190 guard), Zach Nelson (5-7, 165 guard), Cole Hoscheid (6-1, 185 tackle), Keith McDaniel (5-5, 215 center), Kyle Trumble (6-0, 265 tackle), Tanner Becker (6-1, 280 tackle) and Hunter Jewison (6-2, 170 wide receiver).

     “Offensively, we’re going to open the playbook. We’re going to be young and inexperienced up front, but we’re talented. We have a quick backfield and we’ll be able to run more with our quarterback,” said Morris. “Our goal is to be up-tempo again and score quite a few more points than last year.”

     Baumgartner (91 points), Massie (83 points), Burlingame (71 points), Hanke (51 points), Porozinski (31 points), Bade (22 points) and McCollum will return to lead the defense. Porozinski returns as a starter at end, Hanke started games at inside linebacker, Baumgartner returns as the starter at outside linebacker, Massie returns at cornerback, and Burlingame and McCollum will start at safety.

     Vying for the other starting spots are Brandon Johnson, Dickinson, Veo and Hendrickson at tackle; Hagen and Barrett at end; Bade and Dravis at inside linebacker; and Kosel, Weaver and Engst at cornerback.

     Providing depth will be Byer, Cannon, Schulz, Tretbar, Belina, Mack, Nelson, Hoscheid, McDaniel, Trumble, Bittmann, Becker and Jewison up front; Yliniemi, Robbins, David, Carlson, Booge and Scott at linebacker; and Frorath, Jake Dickinson, Breitweser, Logan Johnson, Jarrett Johnson, Garcelon, Day and Utke in the secondary.

     Jarrett Johnson will handle kickoffs and extra points while Becker and Frorath (a foreign exchange student from German) will handle punts.

     “Defensively, we won’t have the team speed we had last year, but we’re still going to be strong and aggressive,” said Morris. “We’re going to have 11 men flying to the ball. We’re going to be physical and we’re going to hit. Teams will know that we’re here to play.”

     With 44 players in the top three grades, Morris has the depth to keep fresh players on the field. The combination of talent and depth has Morris feeling his team can contend for the Heart O’Lakes Conference title and make a run at winning the Section 8AAA title.

     “Having numbers plays a key role in a successful program. We’re still competing for starting spots. I’m going to put the best 11 kids out there, but the nice thing with our depth is that we won’t have to have kids play both ways,” said Morris. “I don’t see an overpowering team in the conference or section. I like our team’s ability, speed, depth and mental toughness. I think we’re talented enough to compete for the conference and section championships.”