Football: Panthers hope winning is the new norm
ELLSWORTH – After last year, the Ellsworth Panthers know how to win.
Relying on a big-play running attack led by All-Area Player of the Year Dennis Schutz (1,165 rushing yards, 21 total touchdowns) and a tenacious defense that held opponents to 9.5 points per game, Ellsworth went undefeated in the regular season, won the Middle Border Conference for the first time since 1999 and got to Level 3 of the WIAA playoffs in an 11-1 campaign.
Now, the goal for the Panthers is to keep winning.
“It’s a progression,” said Ellsworth head coach Clair Austin. “We know that to get to championships and other things we want to do, you have to get through Somerset (who beat the Panthers 14-7 in the Level 3 playoffs) because they got a tradition over there. At the same time, we’re trying to establish that here.
“With Ellsworth, we’re competitive now and people can’t look past us. They have to really gear up to play us also.”
There is the pesky matter of replacing last year’s senior-heavy lineup. Gone are the team’s leading rusher (Schutz), top tackler (Logan Kemmerer, 110), top offensive lineman (Spencer Reding) and one of the top defensive backs (Brett Freier, 74 tackles, four interceptions) among the group of players that graduated.
Like with any strong football powerhouse, the Panthers are hoping they’re reloading instead of rebuilding. Bringing back a group of new seniors in the double digits certainly helps in that regard.
“It was great last year with those (seniors), I had the funnest time playing football last year,” senior lineman Michael Koch said, “but we’re hoping this season is the year we bring another state championship here (to Ellsworth).”
Senior fullback/defensive end Jarek Fischer added, “Every team brings different qualities. Last season’s over and it’s time to start over again.”
That push to stay atop the MBC starts with the defense, which has been Austin’s hallmark since his days coaching state championship-caliber teams at Goodhue.
“We bring our two defensive ends back in Jarek Fischer and Michael Koch,” Austin said. “Then in the secondary, we have Nick Taranto, Riley Melstrom and Eric McGregor back there. Our linebacker corps will be new, but it’ll be a good one before we’re done here. They’re young, but they’re real aggressive kids.”
The offense will rely on a committee of running backs, including Evan Klawitter and Jordan Close, which Austin hopes can provide a pack of 500-yard rushers. At quarterback, Austin said the team will have seniors Emery Whalen and Eric McGregor competing for snaps behind a line that has just one starter back in Koch.
“If we can shut teams down and score – our goal is the score four or more times a game – we’re going to win a lot of football games,” Austin said.
Some details need to be finalized before the season opener at Spooner on Aug. 22, but the Panthers aren’t about to relinquish their hard-fought success.
“We don’t want to stay at the same level,” Koch said. “We want to get to Madison, and we still have a sour taste in our mouth about the Somerset game (a 14-7 loss in the Level 3 playoffs), so we’re looking to improve. We had a great season last year, but there’s always room for improvement.”