The Ellsworth Panthers (3-7, 1-4 Middle Border Conference) ran into a buzz saw Friday night when they hosted the Prescott Cardinals (8-1, 5-0 MBC) and lost 69-35. However, that loss is just a very small part of the process as the Panthers’ program continues to rebuild after going 5-17 last season, 4-17 two years ago, 5-18 in 2016-2017 and winning just two games the two seasons before that.

They are already on pace for their best season since 2010-2011 when they went 10-11. So far this winter, the Panthers continue to look for consistency. They win one game, lose one or two, then win another. Head coach Jason Janke said that prior to the Prescott loss they had played well the previous week.

“It’s a big picture thing, we’re building the program from what was really a tough spot four years ago. So the fact we have some ups is a real plus, we do have some ups and downs but we have some pretty significant ups,” Janke said. “So I think if we can get some traction and get two, three weeks in a row where we play consistently, if we can string three, four games in a row that will get the kids believing and that’s really what it comes down to.”

Ellsworth has 11 games left in the regular season, nine of which are MBC opponents along with non-conference contests against St. Croix Falls and River Falls. Of immediate concern, according to Janke, is improving on the boards which will then help an already solid defense.

“If we could figure out a way, with our lack of size, to at least be fairly competitive on the boards. We’re getting really wiped out on the boards, if you have to shoot that well, it’s really tough to win games,” he said. “We just have to continue to work on the box outs, the rebounds and our kids are working at that, it’s just a process. It’s hard work.”

“I think we’re playing good half-court defense, you mentioned that. I think we understand what we need to do to force teams to take tough shots, we do that really well and I tell the kids, it’s really hard for young kids to realize giving up a lot of points but I’m telling them you’re playing good defense, well it’s because we’re giving up rebounds,” Janke added.

Senior Kaitlyn Nugent is a leader for the Panthers and is Ellsworth's top scorer and rebounder so far this season. Alec Hamilton / RiverTown Multimedia
Senior Kaitlyn Nugent is a leader for the Panthers and is Ellsworth's top scorer and rebounder so far this season. Alec Hamilton / RiverTown Multimedia

Ellsworth is giving up just over 61 points per game as a team, but remove outlier losses against powerhouses like Prescott, Northwestern and New Richmond and that number drops to 55 a game. After improving on the boards, the next step is continuing to develop on offense to complement that defense.

“A lot of the things that we struggle with on offense are very difficult; ball handling, consistent shooting, and we can’t fix that November to March,” Janke said. “So our kids in the program I think are now seeing that either we stagnate or we get to work in the off-season.”

The Panthers are a relatively young team with just two seniors and some talented underclassmen. Junior Autumn Earney recently broke the single-game scoring record for the Ellsworth girls’ program when she scored 37 points against Spring Valley (read more about that in a separate article) and Janke said players like junior Brianna Giese are steadily improving when challenged.

Janke also credited seniors Kaitlyn Nugent and Holly Carlson, who will not see the fruits of this steady improvement in the years to come. Nugent is the team’s leading scorer, rebounder and leader.

Ellsworth has most of the week off before they host winless St. Croix Central (0-11, 0-6 MBC) on Friday.