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Panthers celebrate homecoming win

Ian Johnson (5) rushed 15 times for 159 yards and three touchdowns in helping Park Rapids cap off homecoming week with a 41-35 victory over Thief River Falls Friday night.1 / 3
Zach Eystad (9) tried to break a tackle by Thief River Falls' Hans Harder on a kickoff return Friday night.2 / 3
Noah MacPherson (8), Kurt Fritze (52), Nate Rak (55) and David Dirks (6) tackled Thief River Falls' Nathanael Holecek during Friday night's game.3 / 3

Aaron Morris fondly remembered the last time the Park Rapids football team defeated Thief River Falls.

Morris was a junior lineman when the Panthers defeated Thief River Falls 21-19 in 1996. These two teams didn't meet again until 2006 and the Prowlers proceeded to go on a six-game winning streak.

That winning streak ended Friday night as Park Rapids' big-play offense sparked a thrilling homecoming victory at Vern Weekley Field.

The Panthers scored on four plays of at least 40 yards to defeat Thief River Falls 41-35 in a Heart O'Lakes Conference North Division game. That was a major turnaround from the last six meetings between these two teams in which the Prowlers held a 213-75 advantage in points and won all six games by an average score of 36-13.

"This was a big win for us," said Morris, whose team improved to 2-2 in conference play and 2-3 overall. "This win shows the guys that we can play with anybody."

The Panthers, who scored 100 points in the last two games, continued that offensive assault by driving 82 yards in just three plays on the opening series of the game. Tyler McCollum hit Noah MacPherson on a 75-yard scoring pass and Ian Johnson kicked the extra point to give Park Rapids a quick 7-0 lead just 54 seconds into the game.

Thief River Falls quickly countered when Nick Hoffard hit Grady Pederson on a 61-yard scoring play on the Prowlers' first play from scrimmage. With 10:50 to play in the first quarter, the game was tied at 7-7.

After forcing the Panthers to punt on the ensuing series, Thief River Falls drove 45 yards in 11 plays to take the lead. An 11-yard run by Ian Lund and a 10-yard run by Nathanael Holecek drove the Prowlers to the Park Rapids 22. Holecek then rushed five consecutive times for the final 21 yards, including a 5-yard run on fourth-and-4 and a 3-yard TD run. TRF led 14-7 at the 4:16 mark.

Park Rapids' defense stepped up on the next two series as Chris Goplerud recovered a fumble to stop a TRF drive at the Park Rapids 34 and the Panthers overcame a facemask penalty to end a TRF drive at the 33.

The Panthers tied the game at 14-14 with a 49-yard TD run by Johnson, who added the extra-point kick. That TD capped a four-play, 67-yard drive with 2:05 remaining in the first half.

Thief River Falls dominated the third quarter, but the Panthers entered the fourth quarter with the lead.

After both teams exchanged punts, the Prowlers drove 65 yards in 11 plays to take the lead. Holecek, who rushed nine times for 63 yards on the drive, ran in from 4 yards out to give TRF a 20-14 lead with 3:09 to play in the quarter. That scoring drive consumed 6:05 off the clock.

The Prowlers successfully recovered an onside kick at the Park Rapids 43, but the Panthers' defense held and forced a punt.

Two big plays gave the Panthers the lead for good. A 38-yard run by Cory Gartner was followed with a 41-yard TD run by Johnson as the Panthers covered 80 yards in three plays. Johnson's kick gave the Panthers a 21-20 lead with 23 seconds to go in the third quarter.

Thief River Falls, which had the ball for 10:39 in the third quarter, was forced to punt on its first possession of the fourth quarter and the Panthers took advantage when Gartner broke free for a 42-yard TD run on the first play from scrimmage. With 10:47 to play, the Panthers held a 27-20 lead.

Following another TRF punt, the Panthers expanded their lead with a four-play, 55-yard scoring drive. A 9-yard run by Johnson and 40-yard catch by Kyle Goplerud set up a 5-yard TD run by Gartner. That gave Park Rapids a 33-20 advantage with 8:30 to play.

The Prowlers quickly countered with a six-play, 55-yard drive when Hoffard followed a 26-yard throw to Alex Johnson with a 12-yard TD pass to Johnson. With 6:55 to play, the Panthers' lead was sliced to 33-27.

A costly penalty helped the Panthers extend the lead. Alex Johnson intercepted a pass at the Park Rapids 30, but that turnover was negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty. Four plays later, Ian Johnson (who opened the seven-play, 65-yard drive with an 11-yard run) ran in from 28 yards out and ran in the conversion to make it 41-27 with 3:59 remaining.

Thief River Falls capitalized on a pair of penalties to get back in the game. The Prowlers started the drive at the 32, but a holding penalty that negated a 28-yard completion to Alex Johnson pushed the ball back to the 20. On third-and-20, Thief River Falls received a first down on a roughing-the-passer penalty. After an 11-yard run by Holecek, the Prowlers reached the Park Rapids 13 on a 21-yard catch by Alex Johnson and a personal-foul penalty with a hit to the helmet. Holecek capped the seven-play drive with a 5-yard TD run and two-point conversion. With 2:24 to go, the Panthers clung to a 41-35 lead.

The Prowlers attempted an onside kick, but the Panthers recovered it at midfield. McCollum then sealed the win with a 20-yard run on a quarterback keeper as the Panthers were able to run out the clock.

Park Rapids had another balanced offensive attack with 292 yards rushing and 158 yards passing for 450 yards in total offense. Johnson rushed 15 times for 159 yards and Gartner gained 107 yards on 12 carries while McCollum completed 7 of 17 passes for 158 yards with MacPherson making four receptions for 98 yards and Kyle Goplerud catching two passes for 50 yards.

Holecek rushed 29 times for 145 yards and Hoffard completed 9 of 14 passes for 135 yards as the Prowlers fell to 1-2 in the conference and 2-3 overall.

"The key was everyone worked together. The (offensive) line did a fantastic job of creating holes and giving Tyler time to throw the ball, we ran the ball hard and our defense made some stops when they needed to," said Morris. "The kids' hard work is paying off. We know we can move the ball and score. The kids believe in the system and their confidence is growing with every game. It was a fun game to watch."

The Panthers look to extend their modest two-game winning streak this Friday night with another conference game at Detroit Lakes. The Lakers are 5-0 and rated No. 6 in the Class AAAA poll. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

Thief River Falls 14 0 6 15....35

Park Rapids 7 7 7 20....41


PR-MacPherson 75 pass from T. McCollum (I. Johnson kick)

TRF-Pederson 61 pass from Hoffard (Leier kick)

TRF-Holecek 3 run (Leier kick)

PR-I. Johnson 49 run (I. Johnson kick)

TRF-Holecek 4 run (kick blocked)

PR-I. Johnson 41 run (I. Johnson kick)

PR-Gartner 42 run (pass failed)

PR-Gartner 5 run (kick failed)

TRF-Johnson 12 pass from Hoffard (Leier kick)

PR-I. Johnson 28 run (I. Johnson run)

TRF-Holecek 5 run (Holecek run)


RUSHING. TRF: Holecek 29-145, Lund 11-58. Park Rapids: I. Johnson 15-159, Gartner 12-107, T. McCollum 3-19, Eystad 2-5, Dirks 2-2

PASSING. TRF: Hoffard 9-14-0 for 138 yards. Park Rapids: T. McCollum 7-17-0 for 158 yards.

RECEIVING. TRF: Johnson 4-63, Pederson 1-61. Park Rapids: MacPherson 4-98, K. Goplerud 2-50, Gartner 1-10.