A “culture change” can vary for every sports program. For the Ellsworth Panthers football team, their 2019 culture change revolved around refusing to dig themselves a deep hole they’d spend the entire season trying to climb out of.
“The past couple of seasons we’ve notoriously gotten off to slow starts on both sides of the ball,” Panthers head coach Rob Heller said. “We play a lot of come-from-behind football. It’s stressful on a coaching staff, stressful on a team.”
But there was nothing slow about the Panthers’ (1-0) 42-8 Week 1 win over the Loyal Lions (0-1) that kicked off their 2019 season on Friday, Aug. 23.
The Panthers graduated three of their leading skill position players after the 2018 season, but this year’s squad didn’t waste any time in showing that they were ready to fill this season’s roster holes.
“The guys did great,” Heller said. “They came out and beat a team that beat them last year. They’re young, they’ve been extremely coachable thus far this season, and they executed pretty well.”
The Panthers earned three touchdowns from sophomore Max Grand who's confident in his team's ability to fill the holes of the class of 2019.
“It’s definitely some big shoes to fill,” Grand said. “Logan Melstrom was a great running back, but I definitely think we can work with it.”
Week 1’s outcome corresponds with Grand’s belief in his team’s rebuilding ability.
The Panthers got on the board with 5:17 to go in the first quarter when Grand reached for a one-handed, 21-yard reception from junior quarterback Mason Anderson.
“When I get the ball and I see that I have the edge, I know I have a really good block on the edge that I know I can get around,” Grand said. “I just trust my speed, and hopefully I can get some yards out it.”
Three minutes, six seconds later, Grand’s touchdown was matched with a 3-yard touchdown carry from Shane Lange who went on to reach the pay dirt twice against the Lions. After a one minute, 36 second drive for the Lions, Grand finished the half with a 65-yard touchdown carry to boost his team to a 20-0 lead at the half.
The Panthers showed some Week 1 sloppiness at the 8:27 mark of the third quarter, but Anderson and sophomore Jack Janke continued the play, connected for a 14-yard touchdown reception and boosted the Panthers’ lead to 28-0.
“(Anderson) is a captain this year, and he’s a tough guy to fluster,” Heller said. “He executed, and Jack got behind the coverage. On a broken play, that’s big.
“At first I was going to fall on it, but I knew I had linemen coming, and the linemen made good plays. They were able to secure enough guys that I was able to get outside of the pocket, and Jack made a good play to get to the corner of the end zone where I found him.”
Loyal responded to a 13-yard touchdown carry from Lange by completing a 32-yard reception, taking advantage of a roughing the passer penalty and earning a 13-yard touchdown carry from Nathan Buchanan. However, the penalty-turned-touchdown didn’t faze the Panthers who struck again at the 4:29 mark of the fourth quarter with a 9-yard touchdown carry from Grand.
In 2018, it took the Panthers four weeks before they could land their first win of the season. The Panthers spent the rest of the season digging themselves out of a whole that ended in a 3-7 finish and a first-round playoff exit. The Panthers plan to make things easier on themselves this season, and Week 1’s results didn’t hurt.
“The early lead let us feel more comfortable out there, but everyone is comfortable this year,” Anderson said. “Our jobs are simplified this year, and everyone is just confident.”
That’s unique for a team that lists 22 sophomores on its roster, but Anderson isn’t surprised.
“The sophomores were all busting their tails all offseason, and in practice, they’re all wanting to learn and ready for more reps.”
The Panthers may be young, but they won’t let that hold them back as they encounter their first varsity football experiences.
“These guys are so young they’re malleable, and we can kind of shape them as football coaches,” Heller said. “They’re easy to coach up, and they’re buying into what we’re selling.”
The Panthers will return to Fuller-Symes Field on Friday, Aug. 30, when they host the West Salem Panthers (0-1) for another non-conference game.