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Tough schedule during regular season should prepare Panthers for playoffs

Leading the Park Rapids football team this season will be seniors Zach Severtson (13), Josh Baker (12), Jason Haas (5), Matt Benson (30), Zach Hocking (66), Blake Higgins (14) and Bradley Graham (50). Not pictured: Marque Cook, Marty Roesler. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

Aaron Morris has never shied away from a tough schedule.

The head coach of the Park Rapids football team is confident that facing tough opponents during the regular season will lead to more success in the postseason.

This year's schedule features seven teams that were ranked in the state polls at some point during the season last fall. Park Rapids opens with United North Central (which was ranked as high as No. 20 in the Class AA poll) and follows with games against Thief River Falls (No. 16 in Class AAAA), East Grand Forks, Detroit Lakes (No. 9 in Class AAAA), Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (No. 2 in Class AAA), Pequot Lakes (tied for No. 9 in Class AAA), Fergus Falls (No. 4 in Class AAAA) and Perham (No. 12 in Class AAA). Park Rapids started the season ranked No. 8 in the Class AAA poll after going 3-0 before ending the season with a 4-5 overall record.

Last year, D-G-F defeated Pequot Lakes 31-20 in the Section 8AA championship game. Section 8AAA has a new look with Aitkin (which tied D-G-F with a 7-1 record) moving to Section 7AA and Roseau moving to Section 8AA while Thief River Falls drops from Section 8AAAA to join D-G-F, East Grand Forks, Park Rapids, Pequot Lakes and Perham in the six-team section.

Fergus Falls went 7-0 to win the Midwest Red District title while Detroit Lakes finished 6-1. Perham (5-2), Pequot Lakes (4-3), Park Rapids (3-4), Thief River Falls (2-5), East Grand Forks (1-6) and Roseau (0-7) followed.

"I always tell people that I don't mind playing a tough schedule. It gets us ready for the playoffs," said Morris, whose team earned the No. 5 seed for the Section 8AAA playoffs last season and opened with a 35-22 loss to No. 4 Pequot Lakes. "We don't have any soft spots on our schedule. We play good teams all season, which should prepare us for the playoffs."

In addition to playing eight talented opponents, the Panthers will face the challenge of replacing 16 seniors off last year's team. Providing leadership for Park Rapids last fall were the senior class of Tanner Becker, Jacob Bittmann, Justin Dravis, Jarrett Johnson, Kenny David, Jake Dickinson, Brandon Day, Cole Hoscheid, Logan Veo, Ben Garcelon and Logan Johnson. Bittmann and Dravis were all-district players while Becker and Jarrett Johnson received all-district honorable mention honors.

Offensively, Dickinson completed 30 of 83 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns and rushed 68 times for 185 yards and two TDs as the starting quarterback. Jarrett Johnson had seven catches for 95 yards as one of the primary receivers. Becker rushed 50 times for 250 yards and three TDs and Garcelon rushed 37 times for 193 yards and one TD. Bittmann and Hoscheid started on the line.

On defense, Dravis (22 solo tackles, 65 assists), Veo (15 solo tackles, 30 assists), David (13 solo tackles, 30 assists), Day (17 solo tackles, 18 assists), Jarrett Johnson (nine solo tackles, 25 assists), Logan Johnson (10 solo tackles, 25 assists), Bittmann (11 solo tackles, 23 assists) and Becker (seven solo tackles, 10 assists) led the way.

A year ago, the Panthers averaged 172.6 yards per game while averaging 15.9 points a game. Defensively, Park Rapids gave up an average of 21.0 points a game while allowing the opposing offenses to rack up an average of 259 yards a night. Park Rapids committed 18 turnovers while forcing only nine.

Being counted on to lead the Panthers this season are the nine players who started games last fall. That group features seniors Josh Baker (5-11, 175), Marque Cook (6-1, 240), Jason Haas (6-0, 165), Zach Hocking (5-10, 210) and Zach Severtson (6-0, 185); and juniors Cody Dravis (5-10, 185), Jack Hensel (6-0, 185), Payton Hill (6-0, 200) and Tristin Persons (5-7, 150).

Haas (who caught eight passes for 165 yards and three TDs last season) will move to quarterback and will be joined by Severtson (who led the Panthers with 89 carries for 465 yards and three TDs last season) and Persons (who had 65 carries for 185 yards and two TDs rushing and six catches for 53 yards receiving) in the backfield. Hocking (left guard), Hill (left tackle) and Hensel (center) return to lead the offensive line.

Returning on defense are Cook (nine solo tackles, 22 assists) at end, Cody Dravis (17 solo tackles, 55 assists) at inside linebacker, Haas (10 solo tackles, 15 assists) at safety and Baker at outside linebacker.

Competing for the other starting offensive spots are seniors Bradley Graham (5-9, 185) and Matt Benson (6-0, 167) and junior Brendan Kruchowski (6-1, 180) at guard; senior Marty Roesler (6-1, 230), junior Jacob Stewart (6-0, 230) and junior Kian Scott (6-0, 193) at tackle; sophomore Marcus Benson (6-3, 160) at center; junior Zach Fritze (5-10, 165) at running back; junior Spencer Fritze (5-6, 150) and junior Nathan David (5-7, 145) at halfback; and senior Blake Higgins (5-11, 150), junior Jake Reish (6-1, 165), junior Cameron Hoyt (5-9, 150), junior Preston Renneberg (6-6, 170), junior Rylley Clark (5-10, 145) and junior Jerry Engst (5-8, 125) at wide receiver. Spencer Fritze and sophomore Jens Anderson (5-9, 172) will serve as back-up quarterbacks.

Vying for starting spots on defense are Hocking, Hill and Hensel up front; Kruchowski, Baker, Matt Benson and David at linebacker; Reish at safety; and Persons and Spencer Fritze at cornerback.

Dravis and sophomore Shawn Ohm (6-6, 192) will handling the kick-off duties with Severtson and Zach Fritze doing the punting. Severtson (nine kickoff returns for 137 yards and six punt returns for 30 yards), Persons (four kickoff returns for 37 yards), David and Zach Fritze will return kicks.

"We enter the season with a lot of questions. We're inexperienced, but we have a lot of athletes and we have a lot of team speed," said Morris, who will be assisted by Josh Cook (offense), Joe Grimes (defense), Bob Kapsner, Chuck Schmitz, Bryan Hirt, J.T. Luther and Mike Baumgartner. "The kids put in the time this summer in the weight room and (for practice) on Sunday nights. We'll see if that translates to the football field."

Rounding out the varsity and junior varsity rosters will be junior Kaleb Vang (5-5, 150 wide receiver/cornerback); sophomores Keeton Koskela (5-7, 135 wide receiver/cornerback), Joey Klein (5-8, 155 running back/linebacker), Max Crist (5-7, 143 wide receiver/cornerback), Dan Walsh (5-10, 154 wide receiver/linebacker), Eli Bessman (5-11, 157 running back/linebacker), Jeff Haas (5-11, 150 wide receiver/safety), Hunter Brandt (5-8, 144 wide receiver/cornerback), Troy Adams (5-9, 166 guard/tackle), Kolby Brandt (5-9, 173 guard/tackle), Hunter Carnell (5-7, 222 tackle), Joe Stachowski (5-7, 183 guard/tackle), Gabe Arola (5-11, 230 tackle) and Austin Hogdgen (5-10, 246 tackle); and freshmen Tate Usher (5-10, 141 wide receiver/cornerback), Chaise Persons (5-5, 135 running back/linebacker), Lane Monaghan (5-8, 126 wide receiver/cornerback) and Caleb David (5-5, 130 running back/linebacker).

Even though the Panthers have several key starting spots to fill, Morris is counting on the Panthers to put a competitive team on the field this season.

"We need kids to step up and play right away. If we come out ready and prepared to play, we'll be fine," said Morris. "We're going to be competitive. I'm excited to see what we can do. These kids want to win. If they keep improving, we'll be where we need to be come playoff time."