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Panthers looking to stay regular perfect in 2014 season

Ellsworth linemen up front and person against Somerset last season.2 / 2

It wasn’t just the varsity squad that went 9-0 during the regular season for the Ellsworth High School football program.

The JV team also went 9-0 and the Panthers’ freshman squad was undefeated too in 2013.

So with only 12 returning lettermen coming back for the 2014 season, those players who helped make the Purple perfect across the board last fall will be counted on to move up and do the same starting with tonight’s season opener at Spooner.

“Our kids are starting to learn how to win,” EHS’s head coach Clair Austin said. “They have the good habits which come from knowing how to win. They work hard and they’re disciplined and they believe in what they’re doing.”

These are the character traits of any successful team in any sport or organization for that matter. And from a non-professional standpoint such traits are counted on to offset annual losses in personnel. From Ellsworth’s point-of-view, such losses from the 2013 Middle Border Conference championship squad (11-1 overall and one of the best gridiron teams in school history) were considerable. Gone are 15 seniors and lettermen including All-MBC players such as Dennis Schutz, Brandon VanderMarliere, Spencer Redding, Logan and Brodey Kemmerer, Adam Schuster and Devrin Myers. Also graduating were Kyle Kurrelmeyer, Brett Freier, Dan Giese, Reese Sager, Jacob Fuchs, Nate White, Kenny Stowe and Jordan Brock.

But what the Panthers bring back is not insignificant when it comes to defending a title. All-MBC quarterback, senior Emery Whalen returns along with receivers like seniors Nick Taranto and Jarek Fischer. Also back is All-MBC linebacker/defensive end senior Michael Koch. Taranto also made the All-MBC team in the defensive backfield.

“Nick is our best cover corner on defense and he gives us another dimension at wide receiver,” Austin said.

The Panthers aren’t as big man-for-man up front as they were a season ago but they have the same amount of speed athleticism and speed and perhaps even more so. As a result, EHS will probably throw the ball more often to players like Taranto or Fischer or senior tight ends Brady Yanish or Alex Brand or get the ball to speedy backs in space such as senior Evan Klawitter and junior Jordan Close. They have an experienced quarterback to do this but don’t be surprised if the Purple use a two-quarterback system at times this season with Whalen and senior Eric McGregor. Last season Whalen split time with Kurrelmeyer.

“With Emery back we’ll lean more toward him,” Austin said. “But again we have two quarterbacks with two different skill sets and Eric is very athletic and can handle the position and we may well rotate similar to last season based on game situations.”

Other backs who could see playing time, especially when it comes to running between the tackles, are juniors Riley Melstrom, Ted Mark and Tristen Mueller along with sophomore Jacob Sigler.

Up front is where Ellsworth was impacted greatly by graduation. The Panthers plan on using an eight-man rotation with a pool of players moving up the ranks such as Koch, seniors Max Kuehn, Ethan Lansing and Tyler Beder, juniors Carson Johnson, Lucas Wieghart, sophomore Cole Shonkweiler and even freshman Joe Tingelhoff, who enters EHS already at six feet and 275 pounds.

“He has good footwork and solid skills,” Austin said. “Regardless of class, it’s the top eight up front who are going to have a shot at extensive playing time.”

The line rotation will carry over to defense as well with Koch and Fischer at defensive end and Melstrom, Taranto and McGregor in the defensive backfield. Replacing a middle linebacker like Logan Kemmerer will not be easy but Austin said both Mark and Sigler have looked good in training camp at that spot.

“Our speed is going to be crucial to having a good defense because we won’t be as big as last year,” Austin said.

As it seems with every season, Somerset is again the team to beat for the league title. EHS will have to play the Spartans in Somerset. In fact, the Panthers will have to be on the road a lot more often and early on in 2014. But, Austin points out; winning squads in winning programs aren’t phased by such challenges.

“Our JV and ninth grade teams have to travel to for ballgames too, so it certainly won’t be a new experience for any of our players,” Austin said. “They were prepared to win wherever the game is played and I sure they’ll be the same way on varsity too.”