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While the St. Croix Central football team will be running the ball more, the Panthers aren’t abandoning the passing game. Here quarterback Kyle Larson rolls out to complete a pass in the scrimmage Central hosted last Friday.

2014 Preview: St. Croix Central football team turns on the power

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For the past two seasons, the St. Croix Central football team tried to finesse opponents from an offense that employed four-receiver sets and relied on passing more than running.

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That brought regular season success, but the Panthers hit the wall in the cold weather of the playoffs, when passing teams are whisked away with the wintry winds.

The 2014 version of the Panthers isn’t going to let the wind sweep away its chances. The Panthers have switched their offense to a style that takes advantage of the roster’s personnel. The change is also made more palatable because the Panthers have the personnel that fits well into that power scheme.

The Panthers were an extremely young team, but the experienced the Panthers gained last season should pay dividends this season.

“I think they’re ready to take a step forward,” said Central coach Tony DiSalvo. “Just like in life, there’s a time you grow up.”

The Panther roster contains 15 players who weigh 200 pounds or more. That is led by 290-pound senior John Spaeth, who the coaches are expecting to be hugely disruptive from his position at the center of the Panther defensive line.

“John’s a big teddy bear, but we want him to turn into a real bear on the field,” DiSalvo said.

That incredible amount of size puts the team in a unique situation.

“We’ve got nine kids up front to play three positions and we’re in good shape with all nine of them,” DiSalvo said of the defensive line depth.

Spaeth, junior Decker Grass and junior Andrew Vanderpoel lead the defensive linemen, with seniors Brett Eckman, Josh Van Beek and Jacob Conley, juniors Hunter Hurlburt and Brett Flettre and sophomore Jordan Winegar all expected to be in the line rotation.

Senior Josh Freyholtz and junior Doug Cottrell were projected to be the starting defensive ends this season, but they are both dealing with shoulder injuries to start the season. Freyholtz is expected back in the next week or two, while Cottrell is facing a much longer rehabilitation. There is good depth here, with Connor Rogers, Cole Refsnider, Tyler Koats, Luke Budrow and Colin Schulte all able to step in.

Last year, the Panthers had three sophomores get most of the reps at linebacker. As juniors, Trent Smith, Cody Gostovich and Shiloh Goodwin are smart, seasoned and they’re all big hitters. They’re backed up by Refsnider, Ray Gandy, Jake Nyhagen and Trevor Nelson. Senior defensive back Ryan Gulich could also move up to linebacker if any of the starters were to miss significant time.

Gulich is part of a savvy group of defensive backs that includes Tony Berg, Evan Nielsen, Kyle Larson, Derek DeGross and Jason Matteson.

“We’ve got to play great defense. That’s been the focus in camp,” DiSalvo said.

There will also be changes in the approach the Panthers take. John Tackmann takes over as defensive coordinator following the retirement of Ben Lamb from the staff. Lamb was a great believer in press coverage, but the new coaching staff plans to run a mix of man and zone coverages.

While that’s a significant change for the defense, it’s not near the amount of changes that’s being seen on the offensive side of the ball by the Panthers.

“We’ve decided to run the football more,” DiSalvo explained. “The last two years we averaged less than 100 yards rushing a game. You’ve got to be able to run the ball.”

The goal of running the ball is fortified by the strength the Panthers have along the front line. Guard is an excellent example, where Grass and Conley return, with Van Beek and Hurlburt as capable options. Van Beek, Eckman, Goodwin, Rogers and Koats are all in play at the tackle positions. When the Panthers go to two tight ends, the reserve tackles will move there for more blocking strength.

Refsnider and Rogers will see the most action at tight end, with Freyholtz and Cottrell joining the cast when they are healthy. The center position is in a three-way battle between Budrow, Flettre and Winegar.

Larson and Matteson split time at quarterback last season and that could happen again this year. Whichever isn’t at quarterback will be one of the top wideouts for the team. Sophomores Trevor Nelson and Drew Malecek are the future at quarterback for the Panthers.

There are plenty of options for the Panthers at running back. Smith, Gostovich and Refsnider will all see time at fullback. Gostovich is also in the mix at halfback, along with Berg, Gulich, Nielsen and DeGross. Gulich will also handle the team’s punting and kicking duties.

DiSalvo said the excellent depth on this year’s squad might allow some of the Panthers to only play on one side of the ball, keeping them more fresh over the course of a season. With nearly 70 players on the roster, the Panthers have one of the largest rosters in the Dunn-St. Croix Conference. The Panthers made the playoffs last year, based on a 3-3 D-SC record, but they finished 3-7 overall. Mondovi and Glenwood City, two of the top D-SC teams last year, were hit hard by graduation, leaving the door open for another team to move to the top this year. DiSalvo said the goal set by the 2014 Panthers is to be the team that moves to the top of the conference.

“Every game will be tough for us. We’re the biggest school (in the conference). Everybody is going to be gunning for the big dog every week,” DiSalvo said.

DiSalvo said another of the goals set by the team is to get at least one home playoff game this season. The Panthers have reached the WIAA playoffs each of the past six seasons. The Panthers got to start the playoffs with a home game in just one of those six years (2011), which is when they posted two playoff victories.

The potential of the Panthers showed when they hosted Osceola, Prescott and Bloomer in a scrimmage last Friday. The Panthers had a few hiccups early in their offensive possessions, but they broke a number of plays that showed the big-play potential of the new offense.

“We were physical on both sides of the ball,” DiSalvo said. “The offense got going pretty good. I thought our defense looked much improved.”

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