Jeremy Nordick sees the Park Rapids football team heading in the right direction.

Despite finishing with a 1-9 record, the Panthers’ head coach saw plenty of improvement last season. Based on that progress and a productive offseason, Nordick is expecting his young team to make the transition from playing junior varsity to playing varsity and put a competitive unit on the field this fall.

“We’re young, but we’re athletic. We’re going to have some growing pains at the beginning of the year, but this group has a lot of untapped talent,” said Nordick, who will be assisted by Randy Thompson, Charles Hrdlicka, Jamie Nordick, Brian Johnson, Jesse Bucholz and Noah Bone. “We don’t have a lot of varsity experience, but there is a lot of confidence there. We’re going to ask our young guys to fill roles on both sides of the ball. These guys are looking forward to the opportunity of playing on Friday nights instead of Monday afternoons.”

Park Rapids peaked at the end of last season, defeating Thief River Falls 14-0 to snap a 14-game losing streak and giving No. 2 Pequot Lakes a battle in a 21-20 loss in a Section 8AAA quarterfinal playoff game. Pequot Lakes defeated the No. 7-seeded Panthers 35-14 during the regular season.

Even though the Panthers will field a young squad, Nordick is looking for a successful campaign as he enters his second season as Park Rapids’ head coach.

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Returning to lead the Panthers this fall are nine players who saw extensive action last season. That group features seniors Caleb David, James Hartig and Lane Monaghan; juniors Kobe Burton, Tristan Hill, Josiah May, Nick Michaelson and Sam Reish; and sophomore Harley Wellman.

David returns at running back after rushing 127 times for 403 yards while also catching nine passes for 64 yards. May filled in at quarterback, completing 7 of 18 passes for 97 yards and one TD while rushing for 143 yards on 24 attempts. Back as receivers are Hartig (19 catches for 205 yards and one TD), Michaelson (nine receptions for 115 yards and four TDs) and Monaghan (two catches for 24 yards). Hill returns at center and is the lone returning starter on the offensive line.

May, freshman Noah Morris and junior Logan Jackson will compete for the starting quarterback spot. Looking to take over the other starting spots on the line are Wellman, senior Kenton Klein, junior Isaac Knapp, and sophomores Michael White, Ethan Eischens, Evan Nisius, Nicholas Graham and Mason Yliniemi.

Being counted on to provide depth on offense are Reish at running back along with seniors Joe Huber, Chaise Persons and Tate Usher, and juniors Parker Harmon and Kaleb Stearns at receiver.

“We have experience at running back and receiver. Our line is young, but they’re athletic and physical,” said Nordick. “We’re going to have some big-play capabilities. We need to sustain drives and mix in some big plays.”

Defensively, the Panthers will rely on Hill and David at linebacker and Reish (cornerback), Hartig (cornerback) and Monaghan (cornerback) in the secondary. Wellman (linebacker), May (linebacker), Burton (linebacker) and Michaelson (line) also return with plenty of experience.

David led the team with 63 tackles (40 solo and 23 assists) while Hill had 40 tackles (21 solo, 19 assists), Hartig was in on 21 tackles (16 solo, five assists), Reish had 17 tackles (13 solo, four assists), Wellman had 12 tackles (eight solo, four assists) Monaghan had 12 tackles (eight solo, four assists), May was in on 10 tackles (six solo, four assists) and Burton had 10 tackles (six solo, four assists).

Competing for starting spots and providing depth on defense are Eischens, Klein, NIsius, White, Knapp, and sophomores Caleb Arola and Hunter Harrison up front; Huber, Jackson, Persons, Yliniemi, and sophomores Cory Johnson and Lucas Kritzeck at linebacker; and Morris, Stearns and Usher in the secondary.

“We have 11 to 15 guys who love to fly around and hit people,” said Nordick. “To be successful, we have to be on attack while not giving up the big play. We have to give our offense a few more opportunities.”

Last season, David returned 19 kickoffs for 302 yards and Hartig returned seven punts for 46 yards last season. Hartig and Monaghan will be the main returners this season, Hartig will be the punter and senior Ronaldo De La Cruz Gomez will handle the kicking duties this fall.

Rounding out this year’s roster are juniors Jaxson Lund (wide receiver/defensive back) and Martin Malachi (wide receiver/defensive line); sophomores Aidan Yliniemi-Hensel (wide receiver/defensive back), Cameron Runyan (wide receiver/defensive back), Gavin Nisius (lineman), Luke Hartung (wide receiver/linebacker), Malik Johnson (lineman), Marc Moir (lineman), Noah Huot (lineman) and Quincy Squires (wide receiver/defensive back); and freshmen Alex Brewer (running back/linebacker), Andrew Stopka (running back/linebacker) Anthony Tyge (wide receiver/linebacker), Brayden Kohrs (lineman), Bryant Tesch (lineman), Eli Burton (running back/linebacker), Jack Moses (lineman), Jakob Holmer (lineman), Matt Johanning (quarterback/defensive back), Nolan McKenna (lineman) and Quinn Hoscheid (wide receiver/defensive back).

The Panthers have several key positions to fill with the graduation of 11 seniors, including nine starters.

Offensively, Jens Anderson passed for 756 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 498 yards and four TDs. Jeff Haas caught 35 passes for 351 yards and four TDs. Joe Klein caught an 81-yard pass for a TD. Joey Stachowski (left guard), Gabe Arola (right tackle), Hunter Carnell (right guard) and Shawn Ohm (left tackle) solidified the offensive line.

Defensively, Arola and Kaden Safratowich started at the ends; Stachowski was the starter at tackle; and Klein, Max Crist and Haas were the starting linebackers. Keeton Koskela and Brian Karkinen provided depth. Stachowski (35 solo, 27 assists), Klein (34 solo, 20 assists), Arola (35 solo, 18 assists), Haas (28 solo, 18 assists), Safratowich (17 solo, 13 assists), Anderson (23 solo, five assists) and Crist (12 solo, 10 assists) were among the team’s leading tacklers.

Stachowski earned Midwest Red District honors while Anderson and Haas received honorable mention honors.

Last season, the Panthers averaged 223.1 yards and 10.2 points a game while allowing 30.2 points a game in being outscored 272-92. Nordick is looking for those numbers to drastically improve this fall.

Football games are limited to only 250 fans. For the three home games at Vern Weekley Field, Park Rapids will distribute 175 tickets to family members of the players with the opposing team receiving 75 tickets. A drawing will be held if there are any extra tickets.

Nordick is counting on his team to play well at home and on the road even though there won’t be as many fans in the stands.

“This is the youngest team I’ve had, but this team has the most depth at each position that I’ve ever had. By the end of the season, I expect us to improve and battle with the top teams in the section,” said Nordick. “It’s going to be a fun season. We’re going to play hard, but as a program we have to learn how to win. People don’t have high expectations for us this season. I think we’re going to surprise some people.”

Oct. 9 - vs. Perham, 7 p.m. Oct. 16 - vs. Pequot Lakes, 7 p.m. Oct. 23 - at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, 7 p.m. Oct. 31 - vs. Thief River Falls, 1 p.m.
Nov. 6 - at Fergus Falls, 6 p.m. Nov. 11 - at East Grand Forks, 6 p.m.