As Ellsworth's head football coach Rob Heller would say, lacking leadership can be detrimental to any program.

"It's a department that few players really enjoy jumping into," Heller said. "Players can think they are leaders and go about it with a poor approach and actually end up losing respect of their teammates unknowingly.

"On the other hand, you have the quiet types that lead by example and you wish they would step up into more of a mentorship role of teammates who just aren't cut from the same cloth."

Ivan Mendez is aware of this dichotomy and wants to be the type of leader Heller can't categorize into either group.

Mendez will be a senior in the upcoming school year and has taken it upon himself to act as a senior leader in the months leading up to his final year of high school.

The Panthers held a two-day summer camp, July 8-9, and Mendez took it upon himself to encourage teammates and classmates who didn't come out for football last year to make their way to the high school the week after the Fourth of July.

"I reached out to some seniors and told them they would have a fun time and that they'd get some playing time if they put the work in," Mendez said. "I felt like last year we didn't have many people in my grade go out, and I wanted more of our grade to participate in the sports I like.

Mendez was one of nine Ellsworth juniors who went out for football last season. It's common for teams the size of Ellsworth's to lose players before they enter their junior season.

Sophomore year, players are no longer with their childhood teammates tearing it up on the C Team - all players are sent to the varsity squad where few actually earn playing time as a sophomore.

"Sophomore year includes a lot of challenges, including providing the starters a good look on the 'WIN' team and practicing against experienced juniors and seniors, as well as playing new positions and working just as hard, and even harder, than other players in the program playing JV games and practicing without getting all of the accolades that come with the experience."

Mendez may be the disciplined incoming senior ready to assume a large leadership role now, but his own football career was challenged by the realities of sophomore year.

"My sophomore year I was young; I didn't know much, and I thought my freshman year I played a lot on the C Team and I didn't think I was going to play on varsity, so I was like, 'I don't think I'm going to play that much, so why even go out?'"

The majority of high school athletes have to ponder that question at some point. While some decide to stick it out despite the large commitment that may not be matched with consistent playing time, others come to the conclusion that committing several hours a week to practice just to ride the bench come game time isn't worth it.

Luckily for Mendez and the Panthers' team, some positive influencers got to the skeptical sophomore before he hung up his football career for good.

"Heller inspired me by being a good coach and telling me, 'If you hit the weight room, you're going to get big and do great things,' Mendez recalled.

With no summer job and few other commitments, Mendez decided to listen to Heller's advice the summer before his junior year.

"Why waste my time doing nothing when I could better myself by going to the weight room?" Mendez said. "And the weight room helps with every sport you play."

Mendez not only saw improvements in his football game the following season but also had impressive showings on the basketball court - where he took on a starting role for the varsity team - and on the track.

But Mendez knows he can't be complacent with last season's achievements.

"I feel like now as a senior I have a bigger role in every sport I play, and that's going to transfer onto the court, field or track," Mendez said. "If I don't put in the work, then obviously people are going to play over me - it's varsity. But if I put in the work, our team could be way better, and freshmen and sophomores will see how hard of a worker I am and want to do the same thing."

Mendez has followed up with that plan this summer by not only getting to the weight room, gym and field by himself but by also encouraging teammates to join him.

"Ivan is always in our facility whether shooting hoops in the gym, lifting weights, or just hanging out with teammates," Heller said. "Getting him in wasn't hard at all."

A typical summer day for Mendez starts in the weight room before he heads to the gym to shoot hoops or play basketball against his teammates. Before he heads up to the football field, he makes sure to send out a group message through Snapchat.

"We have a group chat on Snapchat, so I'll message everyone through that and be like, 'Hey, we're throwing at the field this afternoon if you guys want to come up.'"

For the most part, Mendez believes this has been an impressive offseason as far as getting teammates in the weight room goes. However, there are always other commitments including family vacations and jobs that interfere with players' availability. Mendez gets that but doesn't hold back from sharing what's at risk if his teammates fail to make time for football this summer.

"I've really just been getting on guys like, 'Hey, if we want to get better and be better this year, then we have to be out on the field and practicing,'" Mendez said. "If we want to go 3-6, then we can just do the same things as last season. But if we want to be better, we need to talk to the younger guys and not yell at them but just tell them that this is what we want for our season.

"Having more than one leader for the team will be better, so I told all the seniors we've got to be leaders and we have to step up and show the underclassmen what we want and how we want to get there. We need to embrace being a senior and actually own the field."

Leading by example? Check. Taking on a vocal leadership role? Check. Mendez has checked Heller's leadership boxes one month prior to his senior season, but the real test will come during the season when the Panthers are tasked with making their way through the competitive Middle Border Conference. How will Mendez lead his team through adversity? How will he handle teammates who refuse to match his dedication to the football team?

Only time will tell, but for now, Heller and Mendez are just happy the skeptical sophomore grew into an athlete whose commitment to football couldn't be questioned.

"I am very happy with the way he has assumed a leadership role in our weight room for our football team," Heller said. "He has a terrific work ethic and does a great job leading by example. Ivan is a guy who will speak to a middle school player and a three year starter with the same demeanor and respect. He will be a great teammate for the 2019 Ellsworth Panthers, and I am very much looking forward to watching him enjoy his senior year with us."

"I would have regretted it if I didn't come out my sophomore year," Mendez said.