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Football: Panthers plan to stay atop MBC

Members of the Ellsworth defensive line jump out of the chutes during group drills on Aug. 8 at Ellsworth High School. The Panthers, fresh off an 11-1 season in 2013, open at Spooner on Friday. (Republican Eagle photo by Joe Brown)

ELLSWORTH – The pieces finally came together for Ellsworth.

After winning seven games over head coach Clair Austin’s first two years at head coach, the Panthers became the Middle Border Conference champions for the first time since 1999 with an undefeated regular season as part of an 11-1 campaign.

In his fourth season as head coach, Austin says the winning tradition at Ellsworth has started.

“We’re really excited about the younger kids, and the older kids now know what it takes,” Austin said.

Austin continued, “We had great leadership last year, now it’s time to turn the page and get more leadership this year, and what I’ve seen so far is working really well.”

Last year was a colossal step forward, but the Panthers aren’t content with just making the playoffs.

“We want to get to Madison, and we still have a sour taste in our mouth about the Somerset game,” lineman Michael Koch said, referring to a 14-7 loss in the Division 4 Level 3 playoffs. “So we’re looking to improve. We had a great season last year, but there’s always room for improvement.”

What should remain as dominant as last fall is the Panthers’ defense, which gave up just 9.5 points per game to go with three shutouts.

“We bring our two defensive ends back in Jarek Fischer (31 tackles, six sacks) and Michael Koch (47 tackles, four fumble recoveries). Then in the secondary, we have Nick Taranto (35 tackles, six interceptions), who’s a great cover guy, along with Riley Melstrom and Eric McGregor,” Austin said.

If there is a question mark on the defense, it’s at linebacker. But with new additions of Ted Mark, Jacob Sigler and Tristen Mueller playing alongside senior Evan Klawitter, it shouldn’t take long for that unit to keep Ellsworth’s defense stout.

“Our linebacker corps will be new, but it’ll be a good one before we’re done here,” Austin said. “They’re young, but they’re real aggressive kids.”

Offensively, that’s where many of the new faces will be scattered for the Panthers. But while the varsity was a rousing success last year, Ellsworth’s JV and C-squad teams were both undefeated last year.

“We’re hoping (the incoming players) can bring some of that up here and help us out a little bit,” Fischer said.

On the line, Koch returns as the team’s only returning starter. While the numbers and faces are different down the line, Koch believes the incoming talent will be just as effective as before.

“We got another senior (on the line) in Max Kuehn that’s looking really good,” Koch said. “We just need a lot of younger guys to step in. … We can be just as tough as we were last year. The experience won’t be there, but the tenacity and everything else will be the same.”

The backfield appeared to take the biggest loss for the Panthers as the team’s top three runners from 2013 – Dennis Schutz (1,165 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns), Brandon Vandermarliere (660 yards, five touchdowns) and Dan Giese (281 yards, three touchdowns) – have graduated. But, as Austin explains, the run game should remain a strength on the offensive end, led by Klawitter (228 yards, one touchdown on 43 carries).

“(The running backs) were obviously a huge part of our success last year,” Klawitter said, “but I think we got some young guys that can step up and be as good as they were.”

A home-run threat like Schutz, the Republican Eagle All-Area Player of the Year, will be missed. Instead, the Panthers are looking for a stable of backs to shoulder the load.

“Jordy Close and Evan Klawitter will bring some nice continuity to the backfield,” Austin said. “We will be by committee, basically. If we can get four, five or six 500-yard rushers, that would be good. … It’s going to come down to who takes over and who’s hot. Whoever’s hot, we feed them the ball and good things will happen.”

Taranto returns as the team’s top receiving threat (26 catches, 350 yards, three touchdowns), but quarterback remains an open competition between seniors Emery Whalen and Eric McGregor.

“(Whalen) and McGregor are going to fight it out right now,” Austin said. “Eric brings another dimension to quarterback that we haven’t had here for a while. Emery will come in and do a nice job for us.”

Opening the season Friday at Spooner, the Panthers hope to carry over last year’s success, to prove the team is building a winning tradition instead of being a flash in the pan.

“We just wanna keep going,” Fischer said. “We want to win more, but we got a lot of seniors to replace.”

Joe Brown

Joe Brown is the sports editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, he worked at the Marshall Independent and the St. Cloud Times. For updates on local sports, follow Joe on Twitter at @RE_JBrown.

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