The Panthers' defense returns just four players who saw significant playing time last season. The offensive side of the football is even leaner, where Powell trots out just three returning starters. Despite the rollover, Powell head coach Jim …
Athleticism leaves coaching staff optimistic despite turnoverLast year, the Powell Panthers came within a two-point conversion tackle of playing for the state football championship. If they're going to find themselves back in that position come November, the team will have to accomplish the task with several new faces in the starting lineup.
The Panthers' defense returns just four players who saw significant playing time last season. The offensive side of the football is even leaner, where Powell trots out just three returning starters. Despite the rollover, Powell head coach Jim Stringer is looking for good things.
“We lost a good class of seniors,” Stringer acknowledged. “We're not going to drop off much, though. The kids we have stepping in this fall are good, quality replacements. They've just been waiting for their turn and this is their year.”
Stringer will also get a boost from a pair of returning players that didn't see a lot of field time last year due to injury. Both Joe Lujan and Zach Wagner are expected to be back on the field when action starts Aug. 29 against Custer County (Mont.).
“Zach was our top lineman before he went down last year, so having him back is pretty big for us,” said Stringer.
“Both he and Joe are kids who would have been every down players for us a year ago if they hadn't been injured.
Having them both back on the field for us is a boost.”
The keys to the Panthers' Spin offense this season will be turned over to junior Kyle Sullivan. Sullivan was pressed into action as Powell's signal called due to injury for a couple games last season. This year he'll find the ball in his hands with every snap.
“Kyle's a good athlete and he did a good job with our JV team last year,” said Stringer. “He's comfortable out there and he throws the ball well when he's focused on his mechanics. He's doing a good job and we're looking for good things from him this season.”
Given the changes to the Panthers' starting lineup, one of the obvious keys to the season will be how quickly those new faces step in and adapt to full-time life on the varsity field. Almost as important will be how a relatively youthful team matures to create quality depth across the board.
Stringer expects the roster to stabilize somewhere between 60 and 65 players this season. Of that total, 27 will be freshmen. Many more will be sophomores, meaning the sheer mathematics of the situation will force some of the underclassmen to step forward and be prepared to fill in should circumstances warrant.
“We've got a strong sophomore class and that youth is exciting,” said Stringer. “If we can keep those guys and the members of the freshman class excited about football and keep them in the program, it's really going to have an impact one or two years down the road and hopefully will filter down to the classes coming up behind them.”
Aside from the obvious starting lineup changes out on the field, Panther fans shouldn't look for a lot of new things between the sidelines. Schematic changes implemented a couple years ago by Stringer and his staff in order to capitalize on the team's athleticism will remain in place, a testimony to the head coach's confidence in the athletic ability of this new crop of players.
From the fan's standpoint, the biggest changes for the 2009 high school football season involve alterations to the state's football structure itself.
First and foremost, discard those complex mathematical formulas and calculators needed to determine power rankings. High school football in Wyoming is now governed by conference play and playoff spots will be awarded solely based upon teams' order of finish within their conference.
The Panthers will compete in Class 3A's West conference alongside Cody, Jackson, Lander, Star Valley and Worland. The top four teams earn a spot in the playoffs with the top two teams hosting quarterfinal games while the third and fourth place teams will travel east to play the top two seeds from the 3A East conference.
Teams in the 3A East include Buffalo, Douglas, Rawlins, Riverton, Torrington and Wheatland.
Judging from the preseason media and coaches poll released Tuesday night by Wyopreps.com, those around the state are sharing Stringer's expectations for a reloaded 2009 Panther team rather than a rebuilding one. The Panthers begin the year ranked fifth in Class 3A, behind Buffalo and Douglas from the east and conference foes Cody and Star Valley.
The preseason poll also displayed an overall expectation of balance in 3A this season. Of the 12 3A teams, 10 of them received votes from at least one pollster for a place in the top five.
“There's a lot of parity out there, and that's part of what makes it fun,” said Stringer. “Worland always puts a good team on the field. Jackson was in every game it played last season and didn't lose much. Cody's always tough and Star Valley seems to have this conveyor belt that churns out 250 and 260-pound kids for their line. Torrington, Buffalo and Douglas will all be a threat from the east. There's just a lot of balance this season.”
Powell hosts Custer County, Mont., in a 6 p.m. game on Saturday, Aug. 29. It is a contest that won't factor into the Panthers' overall season record, but will count as an official game for the visiting team from Miles City.
“We're going to approach it exactly like any other game,” said Stringer. “I don't believe in doing things differently.”
The Panthers' “official” season starts the following week with a road contest at Riverton, followed by a marathon trip east to Wheatland. Powell's next home game won't come until Week 3 on the calendar when the team hosts Buffalo. Jackson and Worland will also visit Powell this fall while Cody comes calling in Week 7 for the latest edition of the Park County rivalry. The Panthers' other road dates are at Star Valley in Week 5 and at Lander to close out the regular season.