The rallying cry for the St. Croix Central football team this season could be "Remember 2007."
The current Panther players may have been middle schoolers back then, but the Panther coaches don't want the 2012 team to fall into the same trap that befell the 2007 team.
In 2006, the Central football team won its first conference championship since 1988. Many of the team's key players returned in 2007, but the success didn't. The season was a disaster, with the Panthers finishing 1-5 in the D-SC.
So after last year's incredible 11-1 season, you can understand why the Central coaching staff is taking nothing for granted this season.
"We're not going to have what happened in 2007," Central coach Tony DiSalvo. "Everyone thought we'd walk over people. What happened last year is done. Everyone will want to beat last year's champ."
The Panther coaches are convinced that this year's team brings back the experience and leadership to maintain the level of success the team achieved last season. When you graduate two of the best linemen in the area and the team's top two halfbacks there are holes to fill, but the Panthers appear to have the personnel to keep the offense clicking at the high velocity it reached last year.
The offense starts with senior quarterback Carl Moll. Moll passed for 17 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards last season as the triggerman in the Panthers' spread offense. He also ran for 10 touchdowns.
DiSalvo said he expects Moll to be even better this season.
"He's got to make good decisions and he knows that," DiSalvo said in aiming for a reduction in interceptions that the Panthers gave up last season.
Talented younger players Jason Matteson and D.J. Holland are the quarterbacks working behind Moll.
Senior Cody Nyhagen was the Panthers' leading receiver last season, but he'll have a new role in the offense this year. While the tandem of Korey Jacobson and Justin Kattre rushed for more than 1,500 yards last season, Nyhagen will move to the halfback position where it will be his responsibility alone.
"I told him he's going to be dog tired at the end of every game because we're going to give him the ball a lot and he loved the idea," DiSalvo said.
While Nyhagen is no longer at receiver, the Panthers still have plenty of options to use at the four outside positions. Tyler Lathe and Aaron Delander return as a pair of reliable receivers who can stretch the field. Dante Carlson has been catching every pass in sight in winning another of the jobs. Jag Johnson, Matteson and Holland will all be in the mix for time at receiver.
The team has to replace two all-region linemen in Marcus Malecek and Lauden Wood, but DiSalvo said this year's squad has the ability to do it. Returning starters Kyle Aaby and Austin Edison lead the group. They will handle the tackle positions. Brian Gibb and Decker Grass are leading the competition to take over the center position. Jake Bonte and Brandon Sheffler are leading the competition for the other two starting line spots. Brandon Rogers, Alec Lamberty, Jacob Conley, Dillan Krebsback and Josh Van Beek will be the reserves.
The Panthers outscored opponents last year 354 to 185. DiSalvo said this year's team has the same capabilities.
"We think we can score some points. We've got some real weapons," he said.
This is the third year the Panthers are using the spread offense attack. This is helping the long-term development of the program because freshmen have had two years of the system in junior high ball.
"So they know the terminology, the tags," DiSalvo said.
Central's defense brings back experience in the line and the secondary, but there are no returning linebackers after the graduation of Wood and Mike Nelson. Delander and Nyhagen are being asked to step into these key defensive roles, with Rogers, Lamberty and Ryan Gulich as backups.
Lathe and Aaby are sturdy defensive ends. Junior Tyler Christensen has won the noseguard job, with Bonte starting at defensive tackle. There is considerable depth all along the line.
Opponents will have a tough job trying to move the Panther linemen out of the middle. The Panthers have four linemen ranging between 250 and 290 pounds. When they want to field a run-stuffing defense, they've got some pretty sturdy anchors.
Brandon Booth has stepped up to win one of the cornerback jobs in the secondary. Jag Johnson is making a return from last season's broken ankle to man the other corner. The Panthers should be fast and physical at safety, where Moll and Matteson will be starting.
DiSalvo said the Dunn-St. Croix Conference race should be entertaining this season because every team in the conference is a threat. After this Friday's non-conference game against Baldwin-Woodville, the Panthers jump right into the fire with challenging D-SC games against Elk Mound and Colfax.
DiSalvo said the Panthers' goal is to win another conference title and get multiple home playoff games. But it won't be easy.
"What happened last year is done. Everyone will want to beat last year's champ," DiSalvo said as a warning to his team.