Young Panthers looking to build on Class 4A success

NAPPANEE — The 2012 version of the NorthWood Panther varsity football team is not long on experience, but the cupboard is far from bare as the Panthers look to build on their first-ever Class 4A sectional championship in 2011.
Coach Scott Hoover (21-15 in three years at the helm of the Black Crunch, including last year’s title) is very pleased with his youthful crew and the work they have done so far in preparing for the 2012 season.
“Although we don’t have a lot of players with varsity experience, we have a lot of good, solid football players,” stated Hoover. “It’s just a matter of how long it will take us to go from being a group of good players to a great team.”
Leading the way among the returnees on offense is junior running back Blake Cleveland, who was a key member of the backfield for the 2012 squad.
“Blake is clearly ahead of the rest of the group,” said Hoover, “and we are counting on him to be our primary ballcarrier.”
Also in the mix in the backfield are junior Luke Edwards, sophomores Dominic Miranda and Travis Bear, and freshman Tanner Cleveland, brother of Blake.
“All of those guys have different skill sets but all are capable of doing good things with the football,” Hoover said. “None will be a workhorse but all are expected to contribute.”
At quarterback, the Panthers will go with junior Will Kirkwood, who is completely healed from a nasty spiral fracture of his tibia suffered late last season.
“Will has had a great camp,” said Hoover. “He reported in great shape and has some unique abilities that will allow us to spread the field a little more than we have in the past. He is clearly our most important player.”
The offensive line has just one returning starter, senior guard Ben Rethlake. The other guard spot will be manned by junior Tanner White, while classmate Jake Snider will be at center. Junior Corbin Johnson has nailed down one tackle spot, with seniors Zach Telschow and Brett Bridenthal battling for the other tackle position. The tight end spot will be ably manned by seniors Dustin Yoder and Justice Smith. Wide receivers, who typically shuttle the plays in from the sidelines, will include seniors Nick Graber (the only returnee with varsity experience), Dylan Riser and Tyler Resler, junior Trent Sauceda, and sophomore Tyler Minnich.
The defense will be led by Smith and fellow senior Kenny Knigga, back after missing all of 2011 with a knee injury.
“The strength of our defense will definitely be our ends, along with our middle linebacker (senior) Albert Gongwer,” said Hoover. “I have also been extremely pleased with the play of (senior) Merle Mullet, who has exceeded expectations during camp.”
The diminutive Mullet (5’7”, 165 pounds), a fierce tackler, will man the weak-side linebacker spot, while the sophomore Bear will bracket Gongwer on the strong side.
In the secondary, the Panthers have two experienced safeties in Cleveland and senior Dylan Riser, both of who have multiple varsity starts under their belts. Senior Gino Chumas and the junior Edwards will start at cornerback.
The kicking game will be a strong point, thanks to senior Brendan Widner, a two-year varsity letterman with deadly accuracy and a number of big kicks to his credit. The multi-talented Bear will handle the punting duties for the Panthers.
As far as the always-tough NLC, “Concord should be the team to beat with a number of good, experienced players back” said Hoover. “Plymouth was young last year and ought to be improved as well.”
Both teams are also in NorthWood’s sectional, meaning the Panthers will have their work cut out for them to repeat as Class 4A sectional champions. “Jimtown will also be a very tough team for us, especially as an opener,” noted Hoover, as the Jimmies also return many experienced varsity players.
The Panthers open the season with four of the first five games on the road, beginning at Jimtown Aug. 17, and then traveling to Culver Academies Aug. 24 before the home opener against Concord Aug. 31.