Panther seniors honored after three playoff seasons
Tradition never graduates.
It just gets passed on.
That was the message of Creston/O-M head football coach Brian Morrison at Sunday’s team banquet.
Morrison and the rest of the program said farewell to the senior class from this year’s 6-4 playoff team. It was the freshman class when Morrison succeeded longtime coach Dick Bergstrom as the face of the program, so he said it is a special group.
“It will not only be difficult to replace these guys on the football field, but their character and leadership are outstanding,” Morrison said. “A lot of responsibility falls on our junior and sophomore classes to uphold the standards these guys have set.”
The numbers in the program are growing, Morrison noted. Next year he anticipates the largest number of players in grades 10-12 since he became head coach, and the 18-member junior class could be the largest group of seniors since his first year in Creston 12 years ago.
This year there were 14 sophomores and a 22-member freshman team. Only five of the sophomores were in attendance and introduced Sunday.
There were 11 seniors this year, but John Gravlin was unable to play because of injuries. Morrison said he continued to attend all practices and games and assisted the coaches in various capacities.
Adam Baker, he said, was unselfish last year in being moved to offensive guard. This year he returned to running back and rushed for 1,159 yards, second only to Harlan’s Nate Gettys in District 1. He was also a starting defensive end.
Trey Benson showed his potential at the summer team camp at Northwest Missouri State, Morrison said, but suffered a broken thumb in his last game there. That set him back in lifting and playing baseball, but he came on to contribute in a starting role at offensive tackle.
Alex Chapman is an example of how good things happen if you “stick it out,” Morrison said, as he earned a starting role at defensive end as a senior as well as helping in the offensive line.
Already a regular at tight end, Levi Eblen made an emergency switch on defense from outside linebacker to inside linebacker when Seth Maitlen was injured, and learned the position in one practice before a key win over Glenwood. He progressed to the point where he ranked fifth on the team in tackles.
Morrison said he will miss the contributions of all-state linebacker Trevor Frain in several areas, both in on-field performance and demonstrating effort and leadership on a day-to-day basis. The two-year captain broke into varsity play as a freshman.
“Every team respects his talent and the way he plays,” Morrison said. Frain scored 10 touchdowns as a running back in addition to leading the district in total tackles with 146, including 14 solo for losses.
Nathan Haley got his first chance at center at the Northwest Missouri camp as a junior, and progressed to a first-team all-district offensive lineman this year. Morrison called him the leader of an offensive line that rushed for 1,788 yards.
Gavin Leith, Morrison said, was important to the team’s success in many ways. He was a starting outside linebacker and finished second on the team in tackles with 71. He also played tight end and was a key figure on special teams, taking over for injured all-district punter Alex Nielsen and finishing with a 33.5 average.
The team made a playoff run by finishing fourth in the district (3-3) with a revamped offense at two key skill positions. Baker took over for Bryce McIlravy at running back and Brandon Phipps succeeded the multi-talented Luke Neitzel at quarterback, who passed for nearly 1,000 yards last year in addition to becoming the program’s career rushing leader.
Phipps stepped in and kept things going, Morrison said, with a solid senior season. He ranked fourth in District 1 passing with 1,215 yards on a 55.7 percent completion rate (88-of-158) with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also ran for 127 yards and two TDs.
With six quarterbacks nominated for two spots on all-district, Phipps and Glenwood quarterback Corey Bertini were shifted to running back spots, with Phipps on the second team along with Baker.
“Brandon is a solid leader and great competitor,” Morrison said. “We just reloaded with Phipps and Baker and our numbers were outstanding.”
That offense included senior receivers Maxx Walters and Jesse Rathe.
Walters ranked fifth in district receiving with 457 yards on 27 catches, with five touchdowns. He also played cornerback on defense.
Rathe had 185 yards and two TDs on 16 catches and also played in the defensive secondary, ranking sixth in tackles and second behind Nielsen in interceptions with three. Despite a mid-season ankle injury, Nielsen finished with four.
Morrison also announced the all-district awards and team awards that were elected by players in grades 10-12.
Coaches Steve Birchard and Kevin Cooper introduced players from the 1-5 JV squad, noting that through shortages at various positions on Monday nights, several players had to perform in new spots with very little preparation.
Morrison said the 6-3 freshman team is one of the strongest classes he’s seen in the program, and coach Jon Thomson noted how many times the team rallied in the second half of games.
“I want you to understand, this is a four-year commitment, like the military,” Morrison said with a grin. “We’re not letting you quit. We need all of you.”
Off-season weight lifting begins today for those not out for a winter sport, Morrison said. He said he wants to keep moving forward in a program that has made the playoffs three straight years, but gone 0-3 in those first-round games. The past two seasons were losses to 2012 state runner-up Heelan and again this year to the Crusaders, who return to the championship against Washington.
Seniors — Adam Baker (3), Trey Benson (2), Alex Chapman (1), Levi Eblen (3), Trevor Frain (4), John Gravlin (3), Nathan Haley (3), Gavin Leith (3), Brandon Phipps (3), Jesse Rathe (3), Maxx Walters (3).
Juniors — Dillon Bailey (1), Bryce Briley (2), Christian Groumoutis (2), Jake Gutschenritter (2), Connor Kinkade (1), McClain Haines (2), Sam Hartsock (2), Chad Lamb (1), Jake Miller (2), Alex Nielsen (2), Conner Pals (2), Tayler Pettit (2), Cory Rathe (2), Alex Tamerius (2), Jordan Thompson (3), Tyson Tucker (2), Seth White (1), Spencer Wray (1), manager Tanner Webb (3).
Sophomores — Ryan Brown (1), Kyle Fenton (1), Chris Foster (1), Zach Hoffman (1), Joey Huntington (1), Jiovanni Islas (1), Brandon Jones (1), Cameron Leith (1), Kole Lovely (1), Seth Maitlen (1), Nick Perry (1), Zach Smith (1), Wyatt Thompson (1).
Freshmen — Managers Katelinn Davis (1), Erin Hanson (1), Heaven Jordan (1).
Sophomore — Josh Reed.
Freshmen — Ian Burns, Colton Bolinger, Cody Crawford, Keaton Eslinger, Brody Frain, Will Gordon, Matt Hoffman, Kadon Hulett, Trevor Marlin, Jackson Mikkelsen, Tyler Peters, Devon Petersen, Quinten Scadden, Chase Shiltz, Dawson Smith, Kyle Somers, Tom Steinbach, Steven Stow, Michael Stults, Cody Tanner, Seth Thompson, Gavin Woods.
Captains — Brandon Phipps, Adam Baker, Nathan Haley, Trevor Frain.
Offensive MVP — Brandon Phipps and Adam Baker.
Defensive MVP — Trevor Frain.
Special teams MVP — Bryce Briley and Conner Pals.
Scout team MVP — Sam Hartsock.
First team — Nathan Haley, offensive line; Trevor Frain, linebacker.
Second team — Adam Baker, running back; Brandon Phipps, running back; Maxx Walters, wide receiver; Cory Rathe, defensive line; Gavin Leith, linebacker, Conner Pals, defensive back.
Honorable mention — Levi Eblen, tight end/linebacker; Jordan Thompson, defensive line.