Panthers look to surprise opponents

After going 0-9 last season, Aaron Morris expects opponents will overlook the Park Rapids football team this fall. That could be a mistake. The Panthers lost three close games last season by giving up late touchdowns to Wadena-Deer Creek (in a 19...

Park Rapids football seniors
Looking to lead the Park Rapids football team to a successful season are seniors (front from left) Zach Steffen, Caleb Abraham, Brock Fritze, Jeff Hemenway, Kyle Kniss, Cory Odland, Levi Erickson; (back) Jordan Bergquist, Brandon Ritter, Josh Crist, Robert Borger, Cole Tretbar, Logan Schmaus, Scott Wolff, Forrest Drury.

After going 0-9 last season, Aaron Morris expects opponents will overlook the Park Rapids football team this fall.

That could be a mistake.

The Panthers lost three close games last season by giving up late touchdowns to Wadena-Deer Creek (in a 19-13 loss), Perham (in a 12-6 overtime loss) and Roseau (in a 32-25 loss).

"We were a few plays away from winning three games last year," said Morris, who begins his third season as the Panthers' head coach. "I think we're going to surprise a lot of teams this year."

In nine games last season, the Panthers found the end zone only 13 times and scored 83 points for an average of 9.2 per game. In contrast, Park Rapids' opponents scored 253 points for an average of 28.1 points a game.


Morris is counting on team quickness to produce more touchdowns on offense while limiting big plays on defense.

In order to do that, the Panthers must find players to fill in for last year's senior class of Danny Pike, Billy Kimball, Colin Vaadeland, Christian Ridlon, Kyle Kanten, Nick Belfiori and Tyler Barr. Pike and Kimball were Heart O'Lakes Conference selections while Ridlon and Vaadeland received all-conference honorable mention honors.

Pike was the Panthers' leading rusher with 365 yards on 114 carries with four touchdowns and led the team in tackles with 46 solo tackles and 100 assists. Kimball was second in tackles with 79 and started at center and defensive tackle. Vaadeland was second in rushing with 362 yards on 101 carries, caught seven passes for 57 yards and had 22 tackles at cornerback. Ridlon tallied 53 tackles at end and started at offensive tackle. Kanten had 47 tackles at safety and had three receptions for 85 yards on offense. Belfiori filled in at guard and started at defensive tackle while Barr started at guard.

Being counted on to lead the Panthers this season are the 21 returning letterwinners: seniors Caleb Abraham (5-11, 170), Robert Borger (6-0, 175), Josh Crist (6-2, 170), Forrest Drury (6-0, 185), Levi Erickson (5-10, 175), Brock Fritze (5-7, 150), Jeff Hemenway (5-6, 170), Kyle Kniss (6-0, 170), Cory Odland (5-9, 170), Brandon Ritter (6-2, 220), Logan Schmaus (6-3, 200), Zachary Steffen (5-7, 150) and Cole Tretbar (6-4, 205); and juniors David Dirks (5-10, 170), Zachary Eystad (5-9, 150), Cory Gartner (6-0, 165), Chris Goplerud (6-0, 165), Ian Johnson (6-2, 165), Kyle Ritter (6-1, 220), Andy Waller (6-0, 175) and Kody Walsh (5-10, 170).

Offensively, Johnson returns at quarterback with Erickson, Odland and Drury leading the running attack. Brandon Ritter will move from tackle to fullback. Erickson and Drury will also be used at wide receiver with Drury and Crist playing tight end. Up front, Fritze returns as a starter at guard with Tretbar moving from tight end to tackle.

Looking to fill the other starting spots are Eystad, Dirks, Gartner, Walsh and Steffen at running back; Kniss and Waller at tight end; Schmaus and Goplerud at tackle; Abraham and Borger at guard; and Hemenway at center.

Johnson completed 30 of 97 passes for 462 yards and three TDs and rushed 46 times for 161 yards and four TDs last season. Drury rushed 82 times for 264 yards and led the team with 10 receptions for 149 yards and three TDs.

Returning on defense are Brandon Ritter and Tretbar at end; Fritze at tackle; Drury and Waller at linebacker; and Odland at cornerback. Erickson will move from safety to linebacker.


Looking to fill the other starting spots are Goplerud at tackle; Steffen and Kniss at linebacker; Eystad, Gartner, Walsh and Dirks at cornerback; and Johnson at safety.

Drury was third in tackles with 74, Erickson was fourth with 53 tackles and Brandon Ritter was fifth with 50 tackles. Tretbar was in on 35 tackles, Odland made 29 tackles, Waller had 21 tackles, Fritze had 16 tackles, Goplerud made 11 tackles and Kniss had 10 tackles.

Rounding out this year's varsity roster are seniors Scott Wolff (6-5, 160 wide receiver/defensive end) and Jordan Bergquist (6-1, 180 guard/tackle); junior Trai Schmidt (5-10, 240 center/defensive tack-le); and sophomores Isaiah Hensel (5-9, 160 wide receiver/linebacker), Noah MacPherson (6-0, 170 wide receiver/linebacker), Drew Bade (6-2, 155 quarterback/safety), Josh Severtson (5-8, 155 running back/cornerback), Spencer Adolphson (5-7, 130 wide receiver/cornerback), Rilee Johnson (6-2, 165 wide receiver/linebacker), Kurt Fritze (6-2, 190 fullback/linebacker), Tyler McCollum (6-1, 165 quarterback/safety), Cortland Martin (5-11, 160 running back/cornerback), Zach Jewison (6-2, 205 guard/tackle), Con- nor Smythe (5-9, 150 wide receiver/safety) and Garrick Sudder (5-9, 150 running back/safety).

On offense, Wolff will fill in at end, Kurt Fritze and MacPherson will provide depth at running back and wide receiver, Bade and McCollum are the back-ups at quarterback, Schmidt will vie for the starting spot at center, and Jewison will provide depth at guard and tackle.

Defensively, Wolff and Bergquist will compete for time at end and tackle; Johnson will provide depth at linebacker; and McCollum, Martin and Severtson will fill in at cornerback and safety.

Waller will return to do the punting while Abraham will handle kickoffs and extra points.

"I think we're going to be very competitive. We're not very big, but we have good athletes and a lot of team speed. We're going to look to use our team speed as our strength," said Morris, who will be assisted by Joe Grimes and Joe Kuehn (defensive coordinators) and Aron Moses (offense). "Our theme is to be a family and to trust each other and do the best you can. If we work as a unit, we're going to be successful."

Park Rapids will renew an old rivalry with the addition of Detroit Lakes to the Heart O'Lakes Conference North Division. The other conference teams are Crookston, East Grand Forks, Pequot Lakes, Perham and Thief River Falls. The Panthers will battle Crookston, East Grand Forks, Pequot Lakes, Perham, Roseau, Staples-Motley and Thief River Falls for the Section 8AAA title. East Grand Forks defeated Thief River Falls for the section title last year while the Panthers received the No. 8 seed and opened with a 22-0 loss to No. 1 Pequot Lakes.


"These kids worked hard in the weight room and are dedicated to football," said Morris, whose team kicks off the season at Hawley Friday night. "These kids want to be competitive. They want to turn the corner and take it to the next level. It should be a fun year."

1982 Dawson-Boyd High School graduate
1987 Moorhead State University graduate
Sports reporter for Park Rapids Enterprise since 1987
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