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Football: Park Rapids closed the gap on top teams in Section 8AAA

Despite 1-8 record, the Panthers earned respect by being competitive in every game.

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Tristan Hill received the Gary Rehn Award (Team MVP) and Mike McClelland Award (Defensive MVP) after leading the Panthers in rushing with 347 yards on 88 carries with three TDs and compiling 85 tackles during the 2021 season. Vance Carlson / Park Rapids Enterprise

Head coach Jeremy Nordick and the members of the Park Rapids football team know being outscored 231-91 and posting a 1-8 record were deceiving.

In several of those games, the Panthers were a couple plays away from turning losses into victories. The inability to finish off drives in the red zone, failing to stop the opponent on third and fourth down, and committing 24 turnovers in the eight losses prevented Park Rapids from posting a winning record.

“I know what our record was, but we battled everybody and we were in every game. We were one or two plays away in every game. We just were not able to make the big play when we needed to make it. We earned the respect from every single team we played. Other coaches said how tough we were. We just weren’t tough enough,” said Nordick. “People who say we weren’t a good football team are dead wrong. Nobody wanted to play us in the playoffs. We closed the gap immensely. I feel Park Rapids is a sleeping giant. We’re so close to making that jump to becoming one of the upper echelon teams in the section.”

In the season opener, the Panthers outgained Perham 215 yards to 176 yards, but five turnovers resulted in a 28-6 loss. Perham took advantage of those mistakes to build a 22-0 lead at the half.

Three turnovers proved costly in Park Rapids’ 28-9 loss to Fergus Falls in Week 2. Fergus Falls gained 305 yards offensively while the Panthers had 245 yards. The Otters led 14-7 at the half.

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In Week 3, East Grand Forks limited the Panthers to 117 yards offensively in a 27-0 win. EGF, which led 20-0 at the half, compiled 185 yards offensively and forced two turnovers.

Park Rapids racked up 258 yards in offense to defeat Pequot Lakes 28-14 in Week 4. The Patriots were held to 138 yards in this game that was tied 8-8 at the intermission.

Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton rushed for 399 yards and had 455 yards in offense in a 34-7 victory in Week 5. Park Rapids, which compiled 164 yards, had two turnovers and trailed 20-0 at the break.

The Panthers trailed 24-0 at the half in a 38-14 loss to Pelican Rapids in Week 6. The Panthers finished with 355 yards, including 314 passing yards, while Pelican Rapids racked up 346 yards. The Panthers had two turnovers in that game.

Detroit Lakes capitalized on three turnovers in a 20-14 win in Week 7. The Panthers, who trailed 14-7 at the half, had 195 yards.

Park Rapids couldn’t maintain a 7-6 halftime lead in a 14-13 loss to Thief River Falls in the regular-season finale. The Panthers compiled 219 yards, but turned the ball over four times.

For the Section 8AAA tournament, Park Rapids received the No. 6 seed and received a rematch with No. 3 Perham. The Yellowjackets rushed for 289 yards while holding Park Rapids to oly 75 yards in a 28-0 victory. Perham, which led 7-0 at the half, forced three turnovers while turning the ball over four times. D-G-F defeated Fergus Falls 22-20 in overtime in the section championship game.

Leading the Panthers this season were seniors Kobe Burton, Parker Harmon, Tristan Hill, Logan Jackson, Jaxson Lund, Josiah May, Nick Michaelson, Sam Reish, Kaleb Stearns and Kiergon Wilkins; juniors Ethan Eischens, Luke Hartung, Cory Johnson, Lucas Kritzeck, Malachi Martin and Mason Yliniemi; sophomores Noah Morris, Noah Larson, Matt Johanning and Hunter Harrison; freshman Kaleb Weaver; and eighth grader Jaydon Walen.

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Offensively, Morris completed 74 of 135 passes for 1,050 yards and seven touchdowns as the starting quarterback. Hill rushed 88 times for 347 yards and three TDs at running back with May rushing for 96 yards on 35 carries at fullback. Jackson caught 38 passes for 522 yards and six TDs, Michaelson caught 24 passes for 446 yards and one TD, Stearns had six receptions for 117 yards and Lund had seven receptions for 49 yards and one TD as the top receivers with Harmon making five receptions for 38 yards as a tight end. The offensive line featured Yliniemi and Johnson at the tackles; Eischens, Kritzeck and Harrison at the guards; and Weaver taking over for Hill at center.

Leading the defense up front were May, Yliniemi, Kritzeck, Harmon and Martin with Hill, Johnson, Larson, Burton and Jackson at linebacker. The secondary featured Hartung, Morris, Johanning, Lund, Stearns and Michaelson.

Hill led the way with 85 total tackles with Burton (56), Larson (50), May (46), Johnson (43), Jackson (42), Michaelson (36), Yliniemi (33), Hartung (17), Stearns (14), Kritzeck (14), Harmon (13) and Johanning (12) following. May had 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage while Stearns and Larson had two interceptions each. Jackson returned an interception for a TD, Stearns recovered two fumbles and Johanning forced two fumbles. Michaelson averaged 35.2 yards on 17 punts.

Hill received Midwest Red District honors while Burton and Jackson received Midwest Red District honorable mention honors. All-district academic honors went to Hill, Lund, Reish, Wilkins, Hartung, Larson, Morris and sophomore Blake Morris.

Team awards went to Hill (Gary Rehm Team MVP and Mike McClelland Defensive MVP), Jackson (Offensive MVP and Big Play), Reish (Kip Gauldin Leadership and Most Inspirational), Lund (Most Improved), Johnson (Most Improved), Burton (Kamikaze), Larson (Newcomer), Harmon (Teammate), May (Stalk Block and Top Defensive Lineman), Michaelson (Special Teams and Versatility), Stearns (Most Inspirational) and Eischens (Top Offensive Lineman).

“Our seniors were huge for our program. They pushed to get the program to a higher level. They worked hard in the offseason and did everything we asked them to do. They wanted to turn things around and because of the seniors we were able to close the gap,” said Nordick. “They love football and they loved to come to practice. They built a family atmosphere. I’m super proud of their leadership. This is a special group of kids.”

Even though the effort wasn’t rewarded with more wins this fall, Nordick feels good about the future of the Park Rapids football program.

“We've got our program as a whole right where we need it to be. It was a tough season record-wise, but I see a lot of potential in the program,” said Nordick. “We've got over 100 kids showing up on Thursday nights for Panther Pack with our varsity kids helping out. We've got numbers back up in 5th and 6th grade tackle football with outstanding coaches. Our junior high numbers are back up. We've got great support from the school, student body and community to go with one of the best facilities in the area. The stands are packed every Friday night. All we need are a few more wins on varsity.”

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Nordick knows it’s going to be tough to replace the leadership and contributions of this senior class, but is looking forward to a successful season next fall.

“Looking ahead, if we want to continue to turn the corner and close the gap, we need to work harder and outwork the other teams every day of the year. We need our seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen to play like seniors,” said Nordick. “For us to turn the corner and get to the level of Perham and D-G-F, we need to focus on getting better every day. If we do that, the wins will come.”

PARK RAPIDS OFFENSIVE STATISTICS
(For 8 regular season games)
POINTS: Jackson 42, Hill 22, Morris 9, Lund 6, Michaelson 6, Walen 4, Burton 2.
RUSHING: Hill 88-347 (3 TDs), May 35-96, Stearns 11-39, Johanning 4-36, Morris 73-24 (1 TD), Michaelson 1-15, Reish 4-13, Walen 3-10, Jackson 1-2.
PASSING: Morris 74-135-10 for 1,050 yards (7 TDs), Michaelson 1-2-1 for 38 yards, Jackson 1-2-0 for 37 yards, Johanning 0-2-2 for 0 yards.
RECEIVING: Jackson 38-522 (6 TDs), Michaelson 24-446 (1 TD), Stearns 6-117, Lund 7-49 (1 TD), Harmon 5-38, May 3-11, Harting 1-8, Hill 1-(-3).
KICKOFF RETURNS: Stearns 11-207, Jackson 6-99, Reish 2-48, May 3-47, Lund 2-31, Walen 2-22.
PUNT RETURNS: Jackson 2-17, Walen 1-16, Stearns 2-15, Morris 4-14.
PARK RAPIDS DEFENSIVE STATISTICS
SOLO TACKLES: Hill 54, K. Burton 39, Larson 36, Johnson 32, May 32, Jackson 27, Michaelson 25, Yliniemi 20, Hartung 16, Stearns 12, Johanning 11, Kritzeck 8, Harmon 8, Martin 8, Wellman 7, Morris 5, Lund 5, Stopka 1, Maanum 1, Wilkins 1, Harrison 1, Eischens 1.
ASSISTED TACKLES: Hill 31, K. Bruton 17, Jackson 15, Larson 14, Yliniemi 13, Johnson 11, Michaelson 11, Wellmann 10, Kritzeck 6, Harmon 5, Hartung 3, Stearns 2, Morris 2, Reish 2, Johanning 1, Martin 1, E. Burton 1.
QUARTERBACK SACKS: Jackson 1, K. Burton 1, Hill 1, Kritzeck 1, Yliniemi 1.
TACKLES FOR LOSS: May 12, Larson 4, Hill 4, Johnson 3, K. Burton 2, Jackson 1, Johanning 1, Harmon 1, Martin 1, Yliniemi 1.
INTERCEPTIONS: Stearns 2, Larson 2, Jackson 1 (1 TD), Michaelson 1.
FUMBLE RECOVERIES: Stearns 2, Yliniemi 1.
FORCED FUMBLES: Johanning 2, K. Burton 1.

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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