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August 25, 2011 9:02 am

Road Warriors

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Powell senior Cooper Wise carries the  football during a drill  for the Panthers. Wise is one of several experienced returns looking to guide PHS back to the postseason. Powell senior Cooper Wise carries the football during a drill for the Panthers. Wise is one of several experienced returns looking to guide PHS back to the postseason. Tribune photo by Randal Horobik

Experienced Powell eyes playoff return

Mel Gibson would be right at home leading the Panthers’ football program onto the field for the 2011 season. Powell, ranked No. 5 in Class 3A to begin the season, will need to be road warriors in every sense of the word if they hope to return to the playoffs.

The Panthers’ schedule features trips to Torrington, Star Valley and Green River. The “closest” away game is at Buffalo. Altogether, it adds up to more than 2,200 miles in travel time, a figure that’s extreme even by Wyoming prep standards.

“We weren’t real tickled about that when we saw that,” said Panther head coach Jim Stringer, whose job it will be to keep his players focused to play on those long road trips, two of which could run over 7 hours in length. “People come up to me and ask why we’d put together a schedule like that and I tell them, we didn’t. We don’t compile the varsity schedule.”

But they do have to play it. Fortunately for the Panthers, there should be plenty of reasons for the team to be excited once it steps off the bus.

For starters, a secondary that produced a Class 3A-leading 12 interceptions last season returns pretty much intact. As a unit, Powell held opponents to less than 84 yards of passing per contest, a figure that takes on even greater significance considering the Panthers only notched two quarterback sacks the entire season. It is the latter figure that Stringer hopes will change in 2011.

“We don’t necessarily need to look to build on what we did in the secondary last year, but we need to look at how we’re utilizing them,” Stringer said of the unit that included Cooper Wise, Olie Olson, Zach Thiel and Josh Cragoe, among others, last year. “We should be able to add a lot more blitz and stunt packages to put pressure on the quarterback, because our corners can shut receivers down and we’re comfortable with our safeties back there playing center field.”

The result could be fewer plays where the Panthers are dropping linebackers to support pass coverage and more plays where the defense is instead charging forward.

“To have that group back there and to be able to rely upon them, that will make our defense a little more versatile this season,” said Stringer.

Among the linebackers who will be charging forward will be Vince Sleep. As a sophomore, Sleep led Class 3A in defensive points per game last season.

“Vince really evolved and matured last year,” said Stringer. “He actually struggled a little bit early with his reads, but after we got those first three or four games, he really came along.”

With a year of experience, another year of the weight room and a little extra size and speed entering his junior year, it’s possible Sleep might grow upon last season’s already eye-catching numbers.

“We’re looking forward to seeing what he can do,” said Stringer. “He’s a physical player and that should bode well this year.”

Up front, the defense will look to returning players such as Zach Herman, Mike Mundy and Hunter Werbelow, all of whom are entering their second year of varsity ball. Again, Stringer is confident that experience will go a long way toward helping a defense that already ranked middle of the pack for stopping the run last season.

If there are questions for the Panthers entering 2011, they come on the offensive side of the football. The biggest question of them all — what offense will fans see the Panthers line up in?

After running the familiar Spin set for much of the last two seasons, Powell abruptly shifted into a Wildcat formation for much of the team’s quarterfinal playoff game against Riverton. Despite failing to produce a touchdown, the offensive set was responsible for an overwhelming percentage of the Panthers’ offensive output in that game.

Does that mean the Panthers are now fulltime practitioners of football’s latest wrinkle?

“We’ll continue to use it,” Stringer said, while falling short of labeling the set his team’s primary formation. “Every year we look for a scheme that we can build on, and we’ll probably institute it a little more and a little earlier this year.”

That said, the Panthers’ coach notes the Spin will still be a familiar sight for Powell fans. The team will also likely run some I-formation and Pro sets. The added diversity, once again, is due to the team’s added experience as well as personnel.

“We’re better set at the tight end position this year compared to the last couple of seasons,” Stringer said. “We also have some bigger, blocking-type fullbacks this year that we can utilize. The versatility and depth mean we won’t have to be quite so one-dimensional and can go with things week by week depending on what we see in film study.”

Regardless of the formation, it’s a sure bet one of Powell’s goals will be to find a way to get the football into the hands of Cragoe. As a junior, Cragoe was one of Wyoming’s most productive offensive threats in terms of yardage per game. He was also versatile, picking up that yardage by rush, by reception and even by passing the football, despite rarely stepping behind center.

“He’s a playmaker,” Stringer said. “You’ll see him back there for the Wildcat. When he’s not in the backfield, he’s an effective slot receiver in our Deuce series.”

The Panthers also have Olson and Wise, both of whom demonstrated their ability to register yards last season when given the opportunity. Cory Heny has been one of the early season standouts for the Panthers and could also factor into the mix.

“He spent all summer in the weight room,” Stringer said of Heny. “I’m not sure he missed a day, and it shows. He’s faster, stronger. He’s just a speedy kid that’ll give you everything he has when he gets his shot.”

Up front, the Panthers will again be a tad undersized in the trenches. The team has a couple players in the 225-230 pound range, but Stringer notes the bulk of the offensive line will tip the scales closer to 175-180.

“We’ve got good depth though,” said Stringer. “We’ve got 30 kids working as linemen and right now probably the top 12 are all in the upper echelon and very competitive with each other, including a freshman and a couple of sophomores. Depth and competition for positions are never bad things to have.”

The Panthers open the season this Saturday against Miles City, Mont. While the game won’t count for Powell with regard to the team’s record, Stringer notes the team has always entered zero week with the attitude of it being a game.

“It is a game to us,” Stringer said. “We treat it as a game. We prepare for it as a game. We want to go out and play like we would in a game. There’s times I might be a little looser with my play calling than I would in a conference game, because I want to see how the kids react in certain situations, but otherwise, it’s a chance to go hit someone other than ourselves.”

The Panthers didn’t have a chance to do much hitting last season. After taking the long road trip into Montana, a severe thunderstorm forced officials to suspend the game midway through the second quarter.

“Miles City has a great football legacy,” Stringer said. “Last season they were big and fast and well-coached and we were young and the deer in the headlights. I think it’ll be a competitive football game this season between two good teams battling it out to establish things. We’re looking forward to it.”

Kickoff in Saturday’s contest is 6 p.m. Fans are reminded that parking will be scarce due to construction around the field and that the Park County Fair Board is allowing blacktop parking at the fairgrounds.

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