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Turnovers cost Panthers after 3-0 start

Park Rapids kicker Jarrett Johnson (9) was named the Midwest Red District's Specialist of the Year after averaging 50.4 yards on 25 kickoffs with six touchbacks this season. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

Head coach Aaron Morris can point to one area that prevented the Park Rapids football team from finishing with a winning record, hosting a Section 8AAA playoff game and making a run at playing for a trip to state.

Losing three fumbles proved costly in a regular-season loss to Perham that prevented the Panthers from securing a home playoff game and three more lost fumbles led to a loss to Pequot Lakes in the first round of the section playoffs. For the season, the Panthers turned the ball over 18 times, including 15 times on fumbles. Those mistakes led to a 4-4 record during the regular season, the No. 5 seed for the section playoffs and a first-round loss to end the season with a 4-5 overall record.

"I thought our record was going to be a little better," said Morris. "Fumbles and dropped passes were a big issue for us. We just couldn't hold onto the ball on key drives. It seemed every time we fumbled the ball, the opponent recovered it and every time the opponent fumbled, they recovered it. The kids played hard all season. We just fell short."

The season started off well as the Panthers went 3-0 and were rated No. 8 in the third state Class AAA poll.

Defense was the key in the season opener as the Panthers edged United North Central 13-6 at Menahga. Park Rapids trailed 6-0 at the half before rallying for the win. The Panthers compiled only 123 yards and five first downs in offense while allowing 187 yards and nine first downs. However, Park Rapids' defense forced four turnovers to offset an offense that finished with only 60 rushing yards, but turned the ball over only once.

In Week 2, the Panthers played their best all-around game of the season in a 27-7 victory over Thief River Falls. The Panthers tallied 16 first downs and 336 yards in offense, including 332 on the ground, while running 70 plays and controlling the ball for 32:42. Park Rapids didn't turn the ball over and scored 27 unanswered points after TRF led 7-0. The Panthers' defense forced two turnovers by the Prowlers, who were held to only 90 yards and two first downs on offense.

Park Rapids again struggled offensively in Week 3, but the defense forced a turnover and held East Grand Forks' offense to only 135 yards and nine first downs in a 7-0 victory. Both teams battled through a 0-0 tie at the half as Park Rapids managed only 193 yards and eight first downs in the game.

During their 3-0 start, the Panthers had the best defense among Class AAA teams by allowing only 13 points and were rated No. 11 in the state Class AAA poll after the win over Thief River Falls and moved up to No. 8 in the state after shutting out East Grand Forks.

Detroit Lakes dominated the Panthers in Week 4 by building a 34-0 halftime lead in a 46-0 victory. The Lakers compiled 474 yards, including 371 rushing, and 15 first downs while Park Rapids managed only nine first downs and 120 yards, including 80 on the ground. The Panthers, who had only 61 yards through three quarters, turned the ball over three times, including losing two fumbles.

Fumbles cost the Panthers in a 27-26 loss at Perham in Week 5. The Panthers overcame a 14-0 deficit and led 26-21 at the half before Perham scored the only touchdown in the second half for the win. Park Rapids had 287 yards (220 rushing) and 15 first downs while the Yellowjackets compiled 402 yards (239 rushing) and 19 first downs while turning the ball over four times. Park Rapids also had four turnovers. Both teams were rated No. 15 in the state Class AAA poll entering that game.

Pequot Lakes' defense shut down the Panthers in Week 6 in a 26-7 victory to ruin Park Rapids' homecoming game. The Panthers led 7-0, but trailed 12-7 at the half and didn't pick up a first down in the second half. Park Rapids finished with only 73 yards and six first downs while allowing 304 yards and 13 first downs. The Panthers rushed for only 40 yards and turned the ball over once while Pequot Lakes rushed for 213 yards and had one turnover.

Fergus Falls' defense also shut down the Panthers' offensive attack in a 36-0 victory in Week 7. Park Rapids was held to 163 yards and 13 first downs while Fergus Falls rushed for 216 yards and had 341 yards overall while tallying 14 first downs. The Panthers, who rushed for 146 yards, trailed 22-0 at the half and turned the ball over four times.

In the regular-season finale, the Panthers exploded for 35 points in the second half in a 41-6 win over Roseau. Park Rapids led 6-0 at the half before scoring 21 points in the third quarter to take control. The Panthers racked up 404 yards (including 354 rushing) and 21 first downs while not turning the ball over. Roseau managed only 139 yards and seven first downs while turning the ball over twice.

Three lost fumbles by the Panthers helped Pequot Lakes open the playoffs with a 35-22 victory. Pequot Lakes, the No. 4 seed, finished with 200 yards rushing and 293 total yards with 11 first downs while the Panthers finished with 143 yards rushing, 267 total yards and 15 first downs. Park Rapids led 16-13 in the third quarter before the Patriots took charge down the stretch.

Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton defeated Pequot Lakes 31-20 in the Section 8AAA title game to advance to state. D-G-F ended the season rated No. 5 while Aitkin, the No. 1 seed in the section, was rated No. 7 in the state Class AAA poll.

For the season, the Panthers averaged 15.9 points a game while allowing 21.0 points a night. Park Rapids had 107 first downs and 1,983 yards in offense, including 1,553 rushing yards, for an average of 172.6 yards per game. Defensively, the Panthers allowed 99 first downs and 2,331 total yards for an average of 259.0 yards a game while forcing only nine turnovers.

"We started out well. We came out of the gates strong, but then we hit a wall. We knew we had a tough stretch of games and were hoping to go 2-2 in those games. Going 4-4 was not a bad record going into the playoffs, but I was expecting to be at least 5-3," said Morris. "There were only two games that we weren't in. It was nice entering the playoffs with a win, but fumbles hurt us against Pequot Lakes."

Leading the Panthers this season were seniors Tanner Becker, Jacob Bittmann, Justin Dravis, Jarrett Johnson, Kenny David, Jake Dickinson, Brandon Day, Cole Hoscheid, Logan Veo, Adam Herberg, Logan Johnson, Randall Scott, Zach Nelson, Ben Garcelon, Kyle Trumble and Riley Cannon; juniors Jason Haas, Zach Hocking, Zach Severtson, Marque Cook, Nate Weaver, Bradley Graham and Josh Baker; and sophomores Cody Dravis, Tristin Persons, Payton Hill, Jack Hensel and Spencer Fritze.

Offensively, Bittmann and Hocking started at guard, Hoscheid and Hill started at tackle, and Hensel started at center with Graham filling in.

Dickinson returned at quarterback and completed 30 of 83 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns and rushed 68 times for 185 yards and two TDs.

Leading the rushing attack were Severtson (89 carries for 465 yards and three TDs), Becker (50 carries for 250 yards and three TDs), Garcelon (37 carries for 193 yards and one TD) and Persons (65 carries for 185 yards and two TDs).

Dickinson's top receivers were Haas (eight catches for 165 yards and three TDs), Jarrett Johnson (seven catches for 95 yards) and Persons (six catches for 53 yards). Day (two catches for 26 yards) and Herberg (one reception for 15 yards) also filled in at receiver.

Severtson returned nine kickoffs for 137 yards, Garcelon had four kickoff returns for 62 yards, Persons had four kickoff returns for 37 yards, Haas returned three kickoffs for 34 yards and Weaver returned two kickoffs for 34 yards. Haas also returned nine punts for 92 yards and a TD, Severtson returned six punts for 30 yards and Weaver had six punt returns for 27 yards.

Defensively, Jarrett Johnson (35 tackles, two sacks), Becker (17 tackles) and Cook (31 tackles) comprised the ends while Bittmann (34 tackles), Veo (45 tackles, one sack) and Hocking (11 tackles) alternated at tackle. Justin Dravis (87 tackles, one interception) and Cody Dravis (72 tackles, one forced fumble) were the inside linebackers with David (43 tackles, one interception) and Logan Johnson (35 tackles, one sack) playing outside linebacker. Day (35 tackles, one recovered fumble) and Haas (25 tackles, two interceptions) were the cornerbacks while Severtson (25 tackles, one recovered fumble, one interception) and Fritze were the safeties. Baker and Nelson helped out up front while Scott filled in at outside linebacker.

Jarrett Johnson averaged 50.4 yards on 25 kickoffs with six touchbacks while Becker averaged 34.2 yards on 41 punts.

Rounding out the varsity roster were juniors Kyle Stearns, Blake Higgins and Matt Benson; and sophomores Jake Reish, Rylley Clark, Chris Day, Nathan David, Zach Fritze, Kaleb Vang, Brendan Kruchowski, Jacob Stewart, Tom Melvin, Preston Renneberg, Cameron Hoyt and Jerry Engst.

Benson, Clark and Reish joined Dickinson and Persons as players receiving all-district academic honors for maintaining at least a 3.70 GPA.

The graduation of 16 seniors will leave several key positions to fill next season. However, Morris is counting on a successful offseason to make the Panthers a contender to battle section champion Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, runner-up Pequot Lakes, Perham and Aitkin for top honors in the section next fall.

"It's going to hard to replace the seniors. I saw them grow as players over the years. They are good kids who were good leaders with good attitudes and they never gave up," said Morris. "Kids are going to have to step up next year. We're going to have to count on young kids to step up, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. There are going to be a lot of open spots. The kids will have to put the work in to earn those spots. We're not going to be big, so we're going to have to get faster and stronger. We have a lot of talent returning and we're going to be athletic. Staying healthy and putting in the work in the offseason are going to be key. If we put the work in over the summer and if we believe in the system and in ourselves, I believe we can play with anybody in the section. We're going to have a tougher schedule, but I believe we can be above .500 and get to the Fargodome to compete for the section title."