Very young and inexperienced were some of the words NorthWood High School football coach Scott Hoover used to describe his Panther team that is getting ready to open the 2012 season on Friday, Aug. 17 at Jimtown.
“We have a lot of good young men that are getting better,” said the coach, who is set to begin his fourth season leading the tradition-rich Panther program.
Three starter return on offense and two on defense.
“We do not have a lot of guys back. This year’s senior class is one of the smallest we’ve ever had,” the coach said. “But we do have good leaders.”
Returnees on offense are 6-1 (190) senior Ben Rethlake at right guard, 5-6 (195) junior Blake Cleveland at fullback and 5-10 (170) junior Nick Graber at wide receiver while on defense 6-0 (215) senior Justice Smith is back at end and 5-10 (180) classmate Dylan Riser at safety.
One boost for the Panthers’ “Black Crunch” defense is the return of 5-11 (185) senior Kenny Knigga who missed all of last season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon.
“He started for us as a sophomore,” the coach said. “Going into last season we felt like he had the potential to be our next star. So far in practice he looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. It’s nice he has the chance to return for his senior season. I think he can be an impact player for us.”
Last year’s quarterback Zac Coleman graduated so 6-2 (185) junior Will Kirkwood is expected to be elevated to the varsity after running the JV squad a year ago,
“He has had a great camp. We had high expectations for him coming into practice and he has already exceeded them,” Hoover said.
“He is a leader by example. He is a little bit more of a complete quarterback than we’ve had in awhile. He makes good decisions and throws the ball well. Passing is going to be more in our game plan this season.”
Besides Cleveland other top candidates in the backfield are 5-9 (185) junior Luke Edwards at fullback, 5-10 (180) sophomore Travis Bear, 5-9 (160) sophomore Dominic Miranda and 5-7 (165) freshman Tanner Cleveland at tailback.
“Cleveland had a great year for us,” Hoover said. “Edwards is the type of kid that just loves to play the game. Each time he carries the ball you can see a big smile on his face when he’s heading back to the huddle.
“The tailbacks are young and don’t have a lot of experience. One good thing is they have had success at every level they have played. Our hope is they are the next group of good backs in our program.”
Other top contenders at wide receiver besides Graber are 5-10 (175) senior Gino Chumas, 6-0 (160) junior Tyler Minnich, 5-11 (145) junior Trent Sauceda and Riser. Leaders at tight end are 5-8 (165) senior Albert Gongwer, 6-0 (198) senior Dustin Yoder and Smith.
Expected to join Rethlake in the offensive line are 6-1 (198) junior Tanner White at left guard, 6-2 (195) junior Corbin Johnson at left tackle, 5-10 (240) junior Jake Snider at center, 6-1 (230) senior Brett Bridenthal or 6-2 (183) senior Zach Telschow at right tackle.
“We don’t have a lot size in the offensive line, but they are quick,” Hoover said. “Being able to run the ball is going to be a key for us and so is having the threat of throwing the ball.”
The defensive line has Smith and Knigga at the ends with the rest of the members of the offensive linemen rotating time at the tackles.
“We have about five guys who can play two spots so hopefully we will not a lot of two-way players,” the coach said.
Gongwer is the middle linebacker. Other linebackers are 5-7 (165) senior Merle Mullet, 5-9 (175) junior Ralph McCoy and Bear.
“Mullet is an example of a good old fashioned NorthWood football player,” Hoover said.
“He is one kids that stuck it out. You don’t see a lot of that anymore. I think it’s going to pay off for him.
“McCoy is capable of doing good things.”
In the secondary, Edwards and Chumas are the leaders at cornerback with Riser and Blake Cleveland the top contenders at safety. Five-seven (160) senior Tyler Resler could also see some playing time.
“A key for us on defense is the secondary’s ability to defend the pass,” Hoover said. “We think they are good run defenders so we are anxious to see what happens when a team starts putting the ball in the air.”
Back as the place kicker is 5-6 (126) senior Brendan Widner who booted nine field goals last season. That’s the most by a NorthWood kicker since Ryan Burkhart had 10 for the 2005 Panther squad that won the Class 3A state championship in 2005.
Bear, Blake Cleveland and Graber are competing for the punting duties.
Aug. 17 — Jimtown T
Aug. 24 — Culver Military T
Aug. 31 — Concord H
Sept. 7 — Goshen T
Sept. 14 — Wawasee T
Sept. 21 — Northridge H
Sept. 28 — Memorial H
Oct. 5 — Warsaw H
Oct. 12 — Plymouth T
Oct. 19 — 4A Sectional begins