Football: Panthers' 2018 season driven by discipline
Members of the Ellsworth Panthers football team were filled with anger, disappointment and remorse at the conclusion of their season-ending 14-7 loss to Bloomer in the 2017 season.
After leading 7-0 for the majority of the game, the Panthers allowed the Hawks to score 14 points in the final four minutes of the game as they watched their playoff run come to a preventable end.
"We knew it wasn't our best showing," incoming Ellsworth senior Alex Matzek said. "If we could have one game back, it'd be that one. But we can't have it back so it's time to move on."
Though the Bloomer loss has not strayed far from the minds of the class of 2019, Matzek and his senior teammates know dwelling on past losses is as hindering to their hopeful 2018 success as not showing up in the weight room during the offseason.
Instead, this year's Panthers plan to use their memories of last year as a frequent reminder of the necessity of carrying discipline on the gridiron.
"What I remember from last year is our last game," senior Sawyer Hamilton said. "We weren't very disciplined, and that's a big thing this year."
"We definitely have to be a more disciplined football team this year if we want to get to the places we want to get to as a collective unit," Panthers' head coach Rob Heller said. "And it's going to be vital that they understand that moving forward and that they're buying into that."
So far, so good.
After the Panthers' third practice of the 2018 season, Heller said it's evident that his veteran seniors are ready to write their own chapter in the Ellsworth football program, which will require filling the holes of the graduated class of 2018, who led the Panthers' through one of the most contentious conferences in the state to a 6-4 record and a playoff berth.
"It did hurt to lose those seniors; they were a great group of kids," Heller said. "A lot of those guys had significant playing time on varsity, but so did the group of juniors who are coming in as seniors, which has given us a little bit of confidence coming into the season. We feel good with where we're at in the experience department."
This year's seniors are also joined by the largest freshman class Heller has seen in his nine years of coaching who'll have no choice but to buy into the seniors' discipline strategy.
"It's about encouraging them," senior Wyatt Hines said. "They're a little nervous to step in and try something new, but you just have to push them and hype them up."
Confidence and hype will be key for the team that remains small in stature and size compared to stereotypical lines, but the Panthers aren't worried.
"Our defense is really small," Hines said. "We're all like 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10, but with our athleticism, we find a way to do it."
"We run an assignment-based defense, like most do, but this one is especially," Heller said. "You can't just go rogue and do your own thing. The guys know that they have to do their job."
The Panthers plan to continue to keep things fast-paced on both sides of the ball, highlighting their "fast, tough and strong" qualities, according to running back Logan Melstrom who received All-Middle Border Conference honors after recording 860 rushing yards during the 2017 season.
Melstrom, who'll be a designated leader on the field due to his breakout junior season, is currently adjusting to playing with a new quarterback other than Drake Flom, who he's received from for the past three years.
This year, senior Cole Woodland, who suffered a collarbone injury in the first game of the 2017 season, will be leading his team's offense, and his teammates are already impressed with what they've seen from their new QB.
"For a broken collarbone last year, he's definitely shocking a lot of people," Matzek said.
Having sophomore quarterback Mason Anderson as an option will be an added bonus for the Panthers, too.
"We knew (Mason) was going to be big in that second quarterback role," Hamilton said, "and we're excited to see what he's going to do."
Trips to the weight room, captains practice and an overnight Mankato team camp have transformed the Panthers from regretful to self-assured players who're more than willing to dedicate their final weeks of summer to preparation for the season they've been waiting for since their pivotal Bloomer loss.
"I wouldn't want to spend my summer any other way than playing football," Matzek said after his team's four-hour Friday night practice. "We're going to be more disciplined this year. Don't base us off our last game last year."