There’s a chance of more rain showers Friday night, but that won’t put a damper on the eager anticipation of the football season for the 2014 Creston/Orient-Macksburg Panthers.
Although coach Brian Morrison has to replace eight offensive starters and six on the defensive side from last year’s 6-4 playoff team, a stable of 18 seniors leads the high hopes for more success this fall.
It all starts with a home game Friday against Norwalk, a team the Panthers have not faced for three years. (The Warriors shut out Creston/O-M 13-0 in week two of the 2011 season, which proved to be the Panthers’ only defeat until a first-round playoff setback against Spencer.)
But this is a new look Norwalk team. Three years ago, it was a predominantly running team that beat the Panthers in a shutout. The Warrior squad coming to Panther Field Friday night is more diversified, led by a sophomore quarterback who earned his wings last year as a ninth-grader.
“They definitely pass the ball more than three years ago,” Morrison said. “Last year, with the freshman (Brady Brandsfield) coming up to varsity, they changed what they do offensively. They’re in the shotgun 100 percent of the time. They will go empty backfield at times.”
As a freshman for the 5-5 Warriors, who beat district champion Dallas Center-Grimes, Brandsfield completed 133 of 237 passes for 1,822 yards. In completing 56 percent of his passes, he finished with 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
And, one of his two main targets is back. Senior Luke Greenslade, wearing No. 3, had 41 receptions for 649 yards and seven touchdowns. He is also dangerous in the kick return game with a 24.8 yard average on kickoff returns, including a 98-yard touchdown, and 16.5-yard average on punt returns.
Brandsfield is a dual-threat quarterback who led the team in rushing last year with 416 yards. The Warriors graduated senior running back Nathan Johnston, and junior Coby Klocko is one of several candidates to step into that role this year.
The Panther coaching staff viewed Norwalk’s scrimmage last week against Dallas Center-Grimes, a new member of the Panthers’ district, and saw the two teams battle on even terms.
“I thought the first half Dallas Center-Grimes was the better team, and in the second half Norwalk was better,” Morrison said. “On both sides of the ball, Norwalk lost the majority of their starters up front from a year ago. But their leading tackler (linebacker Brock Schwechel) is back, and they are very good in the offensive skill positions and the secondary. It’s a good secondary, with good speed and good athletes.”
Senior Cole Rice had two of the team’s seven interceptions last year.
Morrison, the team’s defensive coordinator, said limiting Norwalk’s big-play capability is the priority Friday night.
“We have to keep them in front of us to compete,” Morrison said. “If we don’t, we’re going to have a tough time.”
Both teams also return quality players in the kicking game. Norwalk’s Daniel Obley was 30-of-33 on extra point kicks last year, and teammate Karson Olerich was perfect in seven field goal attempts, including a 49-yarder.
For the Panthers, Conner Pals is considered one of the premier kickers in southwest Iowa. Last year he was 4-5 on field goals with a 30-yarder, and 34-38 on PATs.
Alex Nielsen returns as a punter with a 38-yard average before suffering an ankle injury last year.
Nielsen succeeds Brandon Phipps at quarterback in an offense directed by former Panther Ryan McKim, who returned to the staff after stints at Iowa State as an offensive graduate assistant and a special teams assistant with Oklahoma University last year.
McKim and Morrison said there are changes in terminology and efficiency in running the offense, such as play signals from the sidelines instead of shuttled players to the huddle, but the general philosophy has changed little.
“We’re still a downhill, zone-scheme, gap-scheme running football team that will take what the defense gives us in the passing game,” McKim said. “It’s still the same plays, just some variations.”
Senior Conner Pals and sophomore Chase Shiltz are listed as co-starters at running back to succeed 1,000-yard rusher Adam Baker. Pals, at 5-8 and 163 pounds, has added 15 pounds from his junior campaign.
Alex Tamerius, a starter at linebacker as a sophomore two years ago, has returned from two knee surgeries to take over at fullback and linebacker for graduated all-stater Trevor Frain.
Junior Seth Maitlen has moved from guard and will play either fullback or tight end on offense, while maintaining his linebacker spot on defense.
Many of the receivers are back, except for Maxx Walters and Jesse Rathe.
In the line, Nate Haley and Trey Benson have moved on to college football at Graceland and Iowa State, respectively, along with tight end Levi Eblen at Simpson College.
Sophomore Cole Tanner assumes the center position in 2014m, while 275-pound senior Jake Gutschenritter holds down a tackle spot. Sophomore Kadon Hulett is a newcomer at guard. Tayler Pettit and Jordan Thompson are returnees at guard and tackle.
The Panther defense is more experienced. Baker and Alex Chapman, now at Iowa Central, are gone from the end positions. Likewise for linebackers Gavin Leith, Rathe and Frain, a two-time all-stater. Walters is gone at cornerback, but several returnees are in the secondary, such as Pals, Bryce Briley, Sam Hartsock and McClain Haines.
Hartsock, Haines, Briley and Tyson Tucker are also rotating at the wide receiver position.
Hulett and freshman Trevor Downing are listed as newcomers in the defensive line along with returnees Pettit and Thompson. Shiltz takes over Rathe’s spot at outside linebacker.
“We’ve had good practices and the the guys are excited to get started,” Morrison said.
The Creston/O-M freshmen host Norwalk at 4:45 p.m., followed by the varsity kickoff at 7:30 p.m.