August 18, 2018 10:46 PM
(ABC 6 News) – The Pine Island Panthers finished 2017 with a 4-5 record, marking the program’s third consecutive losing season—for the Panthers to finish with a winning record in 2018, they’ll have to rely on some young guys to do that.
The Panthers return only 9 of 22 total starters (five on defense, four on offense) from the 2017 team. Overall, the program has “good numbers,” but only eight seniors are on the team this fall.
“Our seniors have been tremendous,” Panthers head coach John Stapleton, who’s entering his 7th season, said. “I can’t think of a group of seniors who have worked any harder than them.”
The Panthers will also have the tough task of replacing their entire starting offensive line, as they’ve had to convert players such as the previous fullback Tanner Simon to offensive tackle.
“I’m undersized, but I have a wrestling background, so that helps with my leverage,” Simon, a senior, said. “It’s been a big change. You really have to have a good bond along that offensive line to communicate and such. It was an easy transition for us, we just have to bring it all together.”
“We don’t have much depth, but our starting line is confident in themselves,” Panthers senior running back and inside linebacker Josh Navratil said. “I feel like they’ll be the most conditioned line in the conference. They’ll get the job done.”
Pine Island will also have a new quarterback this fall, as the previous starter Keegan Majerus has graduated. Currently, sophomore Mason Pike and junior Carter O’Reily are battling for the starting quarterback job in camp.
"They're both good,” Simon said. “Carter has a little bit more experience, Mason has about the same and he has a lot of confidence in himself, and he's fighting for that position."
"I'm confident in the both of them, we just don't know who we're going to choose yet,” Navratil added. “Whichever one he picks is going to be good for our team."
Whoever plays quarterback this fall will have the luxury of having Navratil in the offensive backfield or flanked outside as a wide receiver. Last season, Navratil led the Panthers in rushing, receiving, and scoring. In July, Navratil committed to play football at Division I University of North Dakota in 2019.
"That always helps a lot (having Navratil), especially when you have someone his talent,” Simon said. “You just give him a little hole and he's gone."
“I’m not trying to have (Division I football) on my mind. My goal is to get this team to a section championship,” Navratil said. “I’m trying to leave with a winning legacy. I’ve never been on a winning football team, and I want Pine Island to become a winning football program.”
"Josh is a game-breaker,” Stapleton added. “Any time he touches the ball, he can go the distance. We've moved him all over in the past and we'll probably continue to do that again. We feel like we have other kids on our team that if others schools pay too much attention to (Navratil), we can make them pay for that."
Defensively, the Panthers won’t have much size, but they’ll make up for a lack of size with their speed.
“Our defense, I’m having a lot of fun with,” Simon said. “We’re a really quick group, strong, athletic, we’re pretty well-balanced.”
“We may not be the biggest, but we’re super-fast and smart,” Navratil added.
The road to a section title game appearance or a Class AAA state tournament appearance will likely go through two-time defending section champion Lourdes, but the Panthers will be ready for whatever comes their way this fall.
“We need to get off to a faster start,” Stapleton said. “We want to make sure we’re competitive right away. If we take care of the things we’re supposed to take care of, the wins and losses will take care of itself.”
“I have big expectations for our team,” Simon said. “I think we can go deep into the playoffs and have a strong year. It’s a tough section, but I have a lot of faith in our football team. (Opponents) better know we’re coming for them.”
The Panthers open the season on Friday, August 31 versus Chatfield.
Updated: August 18, 2018 10:46 PM
Created: August 17, 2018 01:09 PM
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