The Ellsworth Panthers’ 2018 regular season concluded with a celebratory dog pile on Fuller-Symes Field.

A 58-20 blowout win over the Prescott Cardinals not only allowed the Panthers to end their Highway 10 rivals’ season, but it also sent them to the WIAA Division 4 playoffs.

But as the class of 2019 basked in their final victory at home, the realities of their season-long mishaps began to downplay their playoff berth.

Sure, advancing to the playoffs is an accomplishment for any team that has to compete in the talented Middle Border Conference, but the Panthers’ 3-6 regular-season record didn’t live up to what their potential indicated on paper.

With experienced, skill position players and a tight-knit, 13-member senior class, why were the Panthers winless until Week 3 and vying for a playoff spot up until the final week of the regular season?

“Last season was interesting,” Ellsworth’s head coach Rob Heller said. “I feel like we let a couple games slip through our grasp and we sort of backed our way into the playoffs. It will probably be the most talented 3-7 team I ever coach.”

Returners Mason Anderson, Ethan Hugare and Noah Schutz all described the 2018 season as “disappointing”.

“I feel like we had lots of talented guys but we never clicked as a team,” Hugare said.

“We were never able to get on a roll we know we could’ve and we dropped games we shouldn’t have,” Anderson added. “Making the playoffs was a brighter spot, but we want to win playoff games — not just make it.”

Making up for lacking experience with dedication

Losing 13 seniors and returning to the MBC makes winning a playoff game seem far-fetched for the 2019 Panthers team.

Last year, the Panthers’ tallied up 1,779 total rushing yards, 1,297 of which were recorded by 2018 seniors Logan Melstrom and Sawyer Hamilton. On top of that, the Panthers also graduated All-Conference receiver Logan Benson who was responsible for 361 of the Panthers’ 986 receiving yards.

2019 Ellsworth High School graduates Logan Melstrom (pictured) and Sawyer Hamilton recorded 1,297 of the Panthers' 1,779 total rushing yards in the 2018 season.
2019 Ellsworth High School graduates Logan Melstrom (pictured) and Sawyer Hamilton recorded 1,297 of the Panthers' 1,779 total rushing yards in the 2018 season.File photo

On paper, the 2019 Panthers appear to have little chance to exceed last season’s 3-7 record, but if they learned anything from the 2018 season, it’s that experience and talent only goes so far if they aren’t matched with commitment and dedication, which this year’s team appears to have plenty of.

The Panthers held a two-day camp the week after the Fourth of July that ran from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the final day, but according to Heller, the day went by quickly because of his players’ attentiveness. The Panthers also took part in a community service project in Polk County where they helped clean up the area after its July tornado damage — not only partaking in an admirable effort, but also tending to their own team chemistry.

Members of the Ellsworth Panthers football team traveled to Polk County to help clean up tornado damage in July.
Members of the Ellsworth Panthers football team traveled to Polk County to help clean up tornado damage in July.Photo courtesy of Rob Heller

“We have a lot of young guys on this year’s squad that are very eager to make their mark on the program,” Heller said. “Our contact days went about as well as they could have. They were extremely coachable and open-minded to some of the changes we are making moving forward this season.”

The Panthers will lean on their seniors this season — as they do every year — but Heller was impressed by the commitment displayed by his sophomores over the summer.

“We had some sophomores work very hard in the weight room this summer,” Heller said. “It’s exciting to see younger players buy in as much as Ryan and Ian Matzek, Jack Janke and Jack Voelker. We hope to see these good habits continue over the foreseeable future.”

Defying the odds

Anderson was also encouraged by the dedication of his underclassmen over the summer, which he claims was the best offseason he’s been a part of, but the junior quarterback knows offseason commitment doesn’t guarantee anything once players hit the varsity gridiron for the first time. That’s where upperclassmen leadership comes into play.

“Our biggest challenges will be our lack of experience at our skill positions as well as how most of us have not played a lot of football together, so building chemistry will take time,” Anderson said. “I am one of only a couple players who have any varsity experience as a skill player, and I see myself helping the young guys adjust to the varsity level and be a leader for the team as a whole.”

Anderson played in nine of the Panthers’ 10 2018 games as a sophomore, recorded 61.8 passing yards per game, threw for five of the Panthers’ eight receiving touchdowns and quickly adjusted to the varsity level. He’s hoping to help his younger teammates do the same this season.

“Coming into this season with varsity experience I feel more pressure to lead our young guys, which is a good thing. I had enough playing time last year to be able to know what it’s like and I think that will help me prepare better this year.”

Anderson, Hugare and Schutz all mentioned running backs Jaeger Quade and Max Grand when asked who they believe will have to serve a larger role this season. Quade and Grand combined for 319 total rushing yards last season, but without Melstrom and Hamilton this season, their upperclassmen believe that total needs to increase extensively.

“I expect our running backs, Max Grand and Jaguar Quade, to play a big role, because we have no returning starting backs from last year,” Schutz, a senior member of the veteran offensive line, said. “Both of them are strong and fast and can play the position well.”

Quade, Grand and the remainder of the Panther team will run into setbacks this season, but if they can recognize their weaknesses early and retain the grit they met the offseason with, they may be able to impress those who’ve already written them off.

“My goal for this season is to surprise the conference,” Anderson said. “I think most people think we are going to have a down year because of what we lost in last years class but we have a group of guys who want to win more than anything and have the will to win.”

The Panthers will kick off their season by hosting the Loyal Greyhounds at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23.