The 2020 Wisconsin prep football season wasn’t always a sure thing. Some of the state’s teams opted out of playing in the fall and participate in the spring season proposed by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. Ellsworth and the rest of the Middle Border Conference weren’t in the latter grouping, however, and chose to play this fall.
The Panthers knew they’d have a pretty good team coming into the season after going 5-4 in 2019. They had no idea they’d put together the program’s first undefeated season though.
Ellsworth’s season got off to a bit of a rocky start as star running back and the 2020 Republican Eagle Football Player of the Year Max Grand suffered a knee injury that kept him out the first three games. Playing without Grand may have in a small way worked to Ellsworth’s favor, however, as the depth of the team really showcased its talent. During that span, the Panthers defeated Osceola for the first time in seven years and also knocked off St. Croix Central — a conference powerhouse in the recent past.
“The first couple wins were big, I know I hadn’t beat Osceola as a coach since I’ve been up here,” Ellsworth head football coach Rob Heller said. “But that win against St. Croix Central -- come back from behind and get a little adversity and knock off one of the top dogs in the conference and the state -- that really kind of fired us off this season.”
With Grand back in the fold, Ellsworth became unstoppable. In the Panthers’ final three regular-season games, they outscored their opponents 131-15 and outgained them an absurd 1,285 yards to 447.
The team had more weapons than just Grand. Senior quarterback Mason Anderson threw for 1,355 yards and 17 touchdowns, with only three interceptions. Junior wide receiver Jack Janke was a major beneficiary of Anderson’s play, catching 38 passes for 739 yards and 10 touchdowns. Throw in playmakers Asthen Quade, Shane Lange and Ryan Matzek and the offense was truly a pick-your-poison threat.
“As a defensive coach, I would not want to game plan for our offense,” Heller said. “There's just too many good football players on that side of the ball that can hurt you. I kind of feel bad for the other coaching staffs in the conference trying to stop that thing.”
Ellsworth wrapped up its season with two WIAA Division 3 playoff games, although no state titles were handed out this year. The first game was a rematch with Somerset, which the Panthers easily handled 44-0. Then came the last game against Northwestern — a team that had just beaten St. Croix Central. The Panthers had squeaked past St. Croix Central earlier in the season so the matchup with Northwestern was not taken for granted.
That Ellsworth team from the beginning of the season was nothing like the current team, however, and the Panthers defeated Northwestern 42-14 to complete the perfect 8-0 season.
“I was just happy to see the kids really take advantage of a unique season … they really made the most of every opportunity they had,” Heller said. “I would feel comfortable putting this team up against anybody in the state in our division. I would really like our chances.”