Football: Park Rapids coaches, players confident of winning more games
More balance and depth should make the Panthers a tough team to beat.
Head coach Jeremy Nordick is counting on a confident Park Rapids football team to produce a winning record this fall.
Ten players graduated from last year’s team that posted a 1-8 record while being outscored 231-91. The Panthers received the No. 6 seed for the Section 8AAA tournament and saw their season end with a 28-0 loss to No. 3 Perham in the first round. Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton defeated Fergus Falls 22-20 in overtime in the section championship game.
Park Rapids has several starting spots to fill with the graduation of Kobe Burton, Parker Harmon, Tristan Hill, Logan Jackson, Jaxson Lund, Josiah May, Nick Michaelson, Sam Reish, Kaleb Stearns and Kiergon Wilkins.
On the offensive end, the Panthers have to replace their leading rushers in Hill (88 carries for 347 yards and three touchdowns) and May (35 carries for 96 yards) and top receivers in Jackson (38 receptions for 522 yards and six TDs), Michaelson (24 receptions for 446 yards and one TD), Stearns (six receptions for 117 yards), Lund (seven receptions for 49 yards and one TD) and Harmon (five receptions for 38 yards).
Defensively, Hill (85 total tackles), Burton (56), May (46), Jackson (42), Michaelson (36), Stearns (14) and Harmon (13) were among the leading tacklers. May had 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage while Stearns had two interceptions. Jackson returned an interception for a TD, Stearns recovered two fumbles and Michaelson averaged 35.2 yards on 17 punts. Hill, Burton and Jackson received Midwest Red District honors.
If the kids keep making progress, we’re going to be a very, very tough team to beat at the end of the year.
On the positive side, the Panthers return their entire offensive line and starting quarterback among their 12 returning letterwinners. That group features seniors Ethan Eischens, Hunter Harrison, Luke Hartung, Cory Johnson, Lucas Kritzeck, Malachi Martin and Mason Yliniemi; juniors Noah Morris, Noah Larson and Matt Johanning; sophomore Kaleb Weaver; and freshman Jaydon Walen.
Morris returns at quarterback after completing 74 of 135 passes for 1,050 yards and seven touchdowns and will be protected by the starting offensive line of Eischens, Harrison, Kritzeck, Martin and Weaver. Johnson and Yliniemi will be the tight ends. Competing for spots on the offensive line are seniors Nicholas Graham, Daniel Hoyt and Marc Moir; junior Jack Moses; and sophomores D’Andre Johnson and Mason Nisius while junior Anthony Tyge will provide depth at tight end.
Walen and Johanning will start at running back with sophomore Aiden Maanum providing depth. The receivers will be Hartung, Larson, Johanning and junior Blake Morris with sophomores Landon Strasburg and Ryan Carroll providing depth. Johanning and freshman Carter Hirt will serve as the back-up quarterback.
“We’re going to use the same formations, but we’re going to have a bit of a different look offensively,” said Nordick. “We’re going to have more speed in the backfield, which we’re going to use to our advantage. Our receivers are confident that they can make the big plays. I’m excited about the depth we have on our offensive line. Another year in the weight room has them more physical. I really like what I see on offense.”
Returning on defense are Yliniemi and Martin up front with Kritzeck joining Cory Johnson and Larson at the linebacker spots. Hartung, Morris and Johanning return to the secondary. Larson (50), Johnson (43), Yliniemi (33), Hartung (17), Kritzeck (14) and Johanning (12) return after tallying double digits in tackles. Larson had two interceptions while Johanning forced two fumbles.
Vying for starting spots are Eischens, Harrison, Graham, Weaver, Nisius, Moses, D’Andre Johnson and juniors Mason Sherva and Bryant Tesch up front with Maanum, Tyge and junior Owen Van Batavia providing depth at linebacker. Walen and Strasburg will also see time in the secondary while sophomore Kale Ravness will enter during nickel coverage.
“Our line will be our strong point on defense,” said Nordick. “We have a lot of extremely athletic guys at linebacker and in the secondary. They like to come up and hit people. We’re not going to outsize anybody, but we’re going to be as physical and give the other teams all they can handle.”
Walen will handle the kicking duties and will join Maanum, Johanning and Noah Morris as kickoff and punt returners.
Rounding out this year’s roster are junior Alex Brewer; sophomores Thomas Hartung, Matthew Berdahl, Peter Carroll and Gannon Hrdlicka; and freshmen Wrigley Clark, Jackson Soderberg, Mason McCarthy, Heath Safratowich, Gabriel Hoogakker, Andy Johanning, Cooper Ackerman, Kaden Shepherd, Corbin Schiller, Parker Hunter, Carver Laturnus, Bradyn Hoffman, Travis Feather-Kaumans, Damian Arellano, Alex Holmer and Chance Landstrom.
The Panthers’ coaching staff has plenty of experience with all having competed at the collegiate level. In addition to Nordick (Bemidji State), Jesse Bucholz (Concordia College) returns to the staff as the defensive coordinator. New to the varsity staff are Josh Popanda (St. Cloud State) as the offensive and defensive line coach, Wyatt Sanford (Dakota State) as the defensive backs coach, Jeb Sanford (Dakota State) as the linebackers coach, Noah MacPherson (Northern State) as the tight end and defensive line coach, and Kevin Murphy serving as the special teams coach and assistant offensive coordinator.
“All those guys have a passion for the game,” said Nordick. “They are constantly thinking about Park Rapids football.”
Nordick believes that passion for the game from the coaching staff and players has the Park Rapids football program heading in the right direction.
“D-G-F has the tradition that we’re trying to get to. They expect to win every game. D-G-F is the team to beat this year, but I think the rest of the section is a toss up. I think the whole section is more wide open than in past years. I think any one of the teams can win it. That’s going to make this season fun,” said Nordick. “Our program is where we want it to be. The development of the program from K through 12 has grown. The numbers are where we want them to be and the excitement is where we want it to be. We have 51 guys out who think team first and I love to see that. If the varsity can win a few more games on Friday night, this program will take off.”
The key to turning the corner and having more success hinges on the players believing they can win games. Nordick feels this group has that belief.
“The kids are excited. They’re confident that they can win,” said Nordick. “We have a lot more balance and depth on both sides of the ball than we’ve had in the past. We’re going to take it a game at a time and grow and build throughout the season. I feel we have the opportunity to win our first playoff game and we’ll take it from there. If the kids keep making progress, we’re going to be a very, very tough team to beat at the end of the year.”