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Panthers set solid foundation for future

Aaron Morris believed the Park Rapids football team had the talent to compete for a spot in the Section 8AAA championship game this season.

Despite finishing with a 3-7 overall record, the Panthers proved they could play with the best teams in the section.

"It was fun to see the progression the kids made," said Morris. "The kids worked hard and they wanted to win. We played our best football at the end of the season."

The Panthers played their worst football of the season early as turnovers proved costly in the first two games as the Panthers were outscored 75-21.

Hawley forced four turnovers and held the Panthers to only 125 offensive yards in a 41-7 season-opening victory. Park Rapids allowed 288 yards in that loss. Hawley, which ended the season rated No. 4 in the final state Class AA poll, went undefeated before losing to Warroad 14-7 in the Section 8AA title game.

In Week 2, Perham forced five turnovers in a 34-14 victory. Park Rapids compiled 277 yards in offense while allowing 383 yards in that game.

The Panthers snapped a 16-game losing streak with a 32-14 victory at Crookston in Week 3. Park Rapids' defense gave up 384 yards, but forced seven turnovers. The Panthers rushed for 294 yards in the win.

Park Rapids followed with a 29-28 win over Pequot Lakes in Week 4. Pequot Lakes was rated No. 5 in the state Class AAA poll at the time. The Panthers scored and converted a two-point conversion with 3:05 to play to pull off the upset. Park Rapids racked up a season-high 371 yards in that win while allowing 416 yards.

Five turnovers cost the Panthers in Week 5 in a 33-14 loss to Thief River Falls. Park Rapids led 14-13 at the half before the Prowlers took control in the second half. Park Rapids finished with 190 yards in offense while allowing 280 yards. Thief River Falls ended the season rated No. 12 in the final state Class AAA poll.

Detroit Lakes compiled 444 yards in offense in a 36-7 win in Week 6. Park Rapids had 214 yards in that loss.

East Grand Forks' defense forced four turnovers and held the Panthers to a season-low 90 yards in offense in a 32-8 victory in Week 7. East Grand Forks had 351 yards in offense in that win.

The Panthers closed out the regular season with a 24-7 loss to Roseau. Park Rapids had 142 yards in offense in that loss.

Despite going 2-6 during the regular season, the Panthers received the No. 5 seed for the Section 8AA playoffs. Park Rapids opened the playoffs by scoring the winning touchdown with :07 remaining in a 13-10 win over No. 4 East Grand Forks. The Panthers overcame four turnovers by compiling 223 yards in offense while holding EGF to only 190 yards.

In the section semifinals, the Panthers outplayed Perham, but the No. 1-seeded Yellowjackets prevailed with a 28-14 victory. This game was tied 7-7 at the half. Park Rapids had 227 yards in offense while holding Perham to 183 yards. Perham ended the season rated No. 13 in the final state Class AAA poll and edged Pequot Lakes 10-3 in the section title game.

"We could have been 4-4, but turnovers hurt us," said Morris. "The first two games were tough. We had a new offensive scheme, which started to click in the third game. Upsetting Pequot Lakes was a highlight to the season. We took it to East Grand Forks in the playoffs and outplayed Perham, but we didn't get any breaks. The kids played hard all the time, no matter what the score was. The kids worked hard and it showed."

For the season, the Panthers compiled 2,153 yards in offense. The running game accounted for most of that as the Panthers rushed for 1,803 yards.

Leading the Panthers this season were seniors Forrest Drury, Brandon Ritter, Cole Tretbar, Cory Odland, Levi Erickson, Caleb Abraham, Jeff Hemenway, Brock Fritze, Zach Steffen, Logan Schmaus, Josh Crist and Scott Wolff; juniors Ian Johnson, David Dirks, Cory Gartner, Andy Waller, Chris Goplerud, Zach Eystad, Kody Walsh and Trai Schmidt; and sophomores Rilee Johnson, Noah MacPherson, Drew Bade, Kurt Fritze and Tyler McCollum.

Drury led the Panthers in rushing with 874 yards on 176 carries with nine touchdowns. Drury also had four receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown to finish the season with 66 points. Drury also returned 19 kickoffs for 388 yards.

Ian Johnson started all 10 games at quarterback, completing 18 of 77 passes for 329 yards. Johnson also rushed 89 times for 365 yards and six touchdowns for 38 points.

Erickson missed the end of the regular season with an ankle injury, but still finished third on the team in rushing with 319 yards on 60 carries. Erickson scored four touchdowns and kicked four extra points for 28 points. Erickson also returned seven kickoffs for 112 yards.

Gartner rushed 27 times for 135 yards and a TD and caught two passes for 10 yards. Gartner, who scored 8 points this season, also returned 10 punts for 68 yards.

Odland led the team with 122 receiving yards on four receptions and kicked five extra points. Odland also returned 13 kickoffs for 266 yards and 10 punts for 63 yards.

Dirks rushed 17 times for 24 yards and caught two passes for 37 yards. Eystad rushed twice for 24 yards. Abraham had 23 yards rushing on eight attempts. Walsh rushed five times for 14 yards. MacPherson had four receptions for 84 yards. Bade caught one pass for 21 yards. Waller had one reception for 10 yards. McCollum completed 1 of 3 passes for 21 yards. Crist also filled in at receiver.

Providing blocks up front were Ritter and Brock Fritze at guard; Tretbar and Schmaus at tackle; and Hemenway, Schmidt and Kurt Fritze at center.

Defensively, Tretbar and Ritter started at the ends; Goplerud, Schmaus, Schmidt, Abraham and Kurt Fritze alternated at the tackles; Waller, Dirks, MacPherson and Walsh played outside linebacker; Drury, Erickson and Steffen were the inside linebackers; Odland, Gartner, Eystad and Ian Johnson played cornerback; and Gartner and Rilee Johnson played safety.

Ritter led the team with 100 tackles and was followed by Drury (94), Tretbar (87), Goplerud (71), Gartner (69), Steffen (63), Erickson (57), Waller (48), Odland (44), Dirks (40), Abraham (30), Schmaus (24), Eystad (13), Walsh (13) and Ian Johnson (7).

Erickson forced four fumbles, recovered two fumbles, knocked down two passes, had two interceptions and recorded two sacks. Abraham had six quarterback sacks. Tretbar recovered three fumbles and had three sacks. Odland intercepted four passes and knocked down two passes. Drury and Goplerud had two sacks apiece. Waller and Ian Johnson each had an interception.

Gartner handled most of the kickoffs, averaging 42.8 yards on 18 kicks. Waller averaged 31 yards on 27 punts while Ian Johnson averaged 31.2 yards on nine punts. Wolff served as the long snapper.

Drury received the Gary Rehn Award as the Panthers' Most Valuable Player and the Mike McClelland Award as the team's Most Valuable Defensive Player. Tretbar received the Kip Gauldin Leadership Award while Goplerud was named the Panthers' Most Improved Player.

Drury and Ritter were named to the Heart O'Lakes Conference team while Tretbar and Odland received all-conference honorable mention honors.

Rounding out the Panthers' varsity roster were seniors Kyle Kniss, Jordan Bergquist and Robert Borger; junior Kyle Ritter; and sophomores Isaiah Hensel, Josh Severtson, Spencer Adolphson, Garrick Sudder, Zach Jewison and Connor Smythe.

"It's going to be tough to replace the seniors. They were great leaders and good role models to the younger kids and set a good foundation," said Morris. "We have a lot of talent coming up. Our younger kids have to step up. The opportunity is there for them to step into starting roles next year. We're only going to get better and better. The kids have to believe in the system and in each other and they have to work hard in the off-season. We saw some success this season. It's up to the kids to take the program to the next level."