Football: Panthers in the driver's seat
ELLSWORTH – After clinching at least a share of the Middle Border Conference Friday with a 26-14 victory over Osceola, Ellsworth’s seniors were relieved to see three years of hard knocks pay off.
Over the last three seasons, the Panthers were a paltry 9-18 and didn’t finish higher than third in the MBC.
“It feels good that Ellsworth has finally turned it around,” said Ellsworth linebacker Logan Kemmerer after the team got a piece of its first MBC crown since 1999. “We’re getting more respected.”
But just because the Panthers finally got a piece of the conference title doesn’t mean the team is ready to relax. Third-ranked (Division 4) Ellsworth plans on taking the MBC outright while clinching home field advantage in the playoffs in the process.
“Like coach said after the game, we don’t want to share the conference,” said running back/defensive back Dennis Schutz. “We want it outright. … We still have to go out next week (against Prescott), get on fire and have our defense play well again.”
Needing a pair of wins to sneak into the playoffs, the Chieftains got on the board first after a scoreless first quarter as Trevor Carlson crossed the goal line on a 3-yard quarterback sneak to make it a 7-0 game with 11 minutes, 22 seconds left until halftime.
Then seconds later on the kick return, the Panthers yanked the momentum away from Osceola as Schutz went 95 yards for a score. Schultz booted the extra point to tie the game up.
“I knew it would be a line drive, so I would be able to run a little bit,” Schutz said. “The hole on the left side was huge. There was no way I was going to miss that one. I made just one little move to make the kicker miss and that’s all I needed to do.”
Ellsworth head coach Clair Austin added, “We had our backs against the wall (after the touchdown). … You have your athletes that step up in big games and (Schutz) stepped up for us.”
Quarterback Emery Whalen tacked on a rushing touchdown late in the first half, scoring on a 1-yard run with 1:38 left in the second quarter.
Then shortly after the break, Schutz broke loose on an outside sweep, going another 44 yards for a touchdown. Throughout the second half, Schutz was dealing with a leg cramp, but it didn’t seem to deter the speedy senior as he finished with 104 rushing yards on 14 carries.
Holding the Chieftains scoreless in the third quarter, the Panthers’ defense added another score for insurance. As Riley Melstrom sniffed out a screen pass and caused an Osceola fumble, Brock Steldt scooped up the loose ball and went 23 yards for a score, making it 26-7 with 11:39 remaining in the game.
“Our defensive line and linebackers, we had an aggressive practice this week and they filled their holes well and got to the ball really fast tonight,” Austin said.
With a late Osceola touchdown on a 7-yard pass from Carlson to Mark Johnson-Trice, the Panthers gave up double-digit points for just the second time this season. No matter for Ellsworth, who remains the MBC’s toughest defense with 6.6 points allowed per game.
“It’s definitely really fun to play on this defense, especially after getting three-and-outs,” said Kemmerer, who finished with nine tackles. “It helps get the whole sideline pumped up.”
Whalen and Kyle Kurrelmeyer combined to go 6 of 10 through the air for 69 yards for Ellsworth. Schutz led the team with three catches for 31 yards, and Jarek Fischer finished with a pair of sacks in the victory.
Taking a shot at an outright conference title Thursday at Prescott, Austin is relishing in the Panthers’ run towards the postseason.
“It’s rewarding to see. You have to be a good salesman and (the players) bought what I’m selling,” Austin said. “I’m glad they’re playing for me, I’m glad I’m coaching them and overall, it’s a good mix right now of the players and coaches we have.
“Everything is clicking and it’s a lot of fun.”