After a post-season thrill ride that culminated in a state title, the Panthers are now braced to discover that it takes even more work to remain on top than it does to get to the top. Fortunately, the experience of last year should be one of this team’s strengths.
“In the off-season, we were wishing it (the 2011 state title) would have had a more positive impact with motivation and enthusiasm in the weight room, but we did have 34 kids go to camp,” said Panther football coach Jim Stringer. “The kids who were out last year know the level we were playing at toward the end of the season and they’re working extremely hard in practice to get back to that level.”
There’s plenty of experience back from last year’s team. Seven offensive and seven defensive starters are back, including the entire offensive and defensive lines and what could possibly be the best linebacking corps in the state of Wyoming.
“We’ve got a really good set of linebackers,” acknowledges Stringer. “When they’re healthy, that’s a good crew.”
The linebacking unit is anchored by senior Vince Sleep, 3A football’s preseason player of the year last season as a junior and one of Wyoming’s top defensive point earners each of the past two seasons. Lining up to either side of him are juniors Tony Lujan and Brendon Phister. Phister was Powell’s defensive points leader last season while Lujan “is just all over the field” when he’s out there, according to Stringer.
“We can move Lujan to middle linebacker if we need to,” said Stringer. “Hunter Werbelow has looked good early, even though he hasn’t played that position previously. We’ve got a couple sophomores that can come in who are looking tough as well.”
But they say that championships are won in the trenches. If that’s the case then Panther fans have some good news for the 2012 season.
Last season, the Panthers’ offensive line started three sophomores and two juniors in the state championship game. The defensive line consisted of two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman, depending on the defensive package. Both units are back en masse bringing players like Zach Thompson, Garrett Michael, Zach Herman, Dillon Ohman and Riley Stringer onto the field to do football’s dirty work.
“It’s not just those kids though,” said Stringer. “There’s some younger guys that didn’t see much varsity time last season that are coming along and pushing those kids for spots. They’re chomping at the bit for a chance to start on one or both sides of the ball. It’s not a given that the same guys who lined up in the state championship game will be lining up when we start the season.”
Stringer notes there are nine starting spots up for grabs along the offensive and defensive lines. His goal is “to give out as many of those spots to different kids who can do the job.” The depth, he hopes, will allow the Panthers to play with more energy in the latter stages of football games as platooned players are given an opportunity to rest.
Like all teams across the state, the Panthers do have their share of holes to fill this fall, most notably in the secondary where a unit that led Class 3A in interceptions for two consecutive years graduated last spring.
“Right now, Dewey Schwahn will probably be back there,” said Stringer. “Hayden Cragoe plays a great safety. I’m not sure if we’ll use him at strong safety or free safety yet. And then we’ve got kids like Cory Heny, Cameron Bennett, Ty Herd, Logan Hartman, Matt Widdicombe and Chris England. The next couple of weeks will tell us a lot about who gets the chance.”
Offensively, the Panthers have to replace a number of role players from the offense as familiar faces like Olie Olson, Keithen Schwahn and Cooper Wise have moved on. Expect names like Heny, Phister, Herd and Ryan Ferro to pop up in their place.
The bigger immediate hole to fill for the Panthers is the one left by the graduation of all-state quarterback Josh Cragoe, one of the state’s offensive leaders from a year ago. That task might fall to younger brother Hayden Cragoe, but Stringer warns that despite the similarity in name, fans should not assume a similar style of play.
“We try not to compare them, because he’s a different type of player,” Stringer said of the younger Cragoe. “He maybe can’t do quite as much with his legs, but he’s got a lively arm. He’s probably a more accurate passer.”
To account for the different skill set in this year’s backfield, fans will likely see a different style of play from Powell this year.
“We probably won’t run as much of the spin series as we’ve done in recent years,” Stringer said. “We’ve got some bigger guys who like to run it up in there, so we’ll probably do more out of an I-formation or an offset-I to make use of that size-speed combination. That, in turn, will set up the play-action package that we ran five or 10 years ago.”
That doesn’t mean the Panthers will completely abandon the spread set.
“It’ll still be there to change things up or to take advantage of something we see,” said Stringer. “We’ve just got so much power this year that it’s nice to expect to get two or three yards when you need it.”
Powell opens play this Saturday with a Week 0 game at Miles City, although that contest doesn’t count in Wyoming’s prep standings. The Panthers’ first official game comes Aug. 31 at Riverton. In good news for fans who logged more than 4,000 odometer miles last fall following the football team, those are two of the longer road trips on this year’s schedule.
Powell’s other away games are at Worland, Cody and Jackson. The first home game for Powell on the new Panther Stadium turf field comes Sept. 7 against Buffalo.