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Panthers face talented Stags in Sub-State

As the old saying goes, “the deeper in the playoffs you go, the tougher the opponents.” That old saying may sound cliché, and it is, but the Paola Panthers opponent for this week’s Kansas Class 4A Sub-State Championship game not only go tougher, it got waaaaay tougher.

The Panthers have not exactly run the gauntlet through the previous three games of the state playoffs, as they easily handled two Southeast Kansas League foes, and then defeated fellow Frontier League member Eudora in a rematch of a week four match-up that the Panthers really had no business losing in the first place.

WLH0219 No, not since a week three matchup with a completely healthy Bubba Starling and his Gardner-Edgerton Trailblazers, have the Panthers had to line up against talent of this magnitude, and the scary part is, the Bishop Miege Stags may be better. But, unfortunately for the Panthers, and fortunately for the Stags, that match-up will have to wait till next year when Gardner joins the Stags in the East Kansas League, and will move up and compete with Gardner at the 5A level. But for this season, Miege will play 4A football, and it is that Stag team which will roll into Panther Stadium Friday night, November 20, 2009 to face the Panthers with a State Championship berth on the line.

This may not be the biggest game to have ever been played at Panther Stadium, but it’s certainly in the top ten, maybe top five, and as for the talent that will be assembled on the field, it may number one.

To say the Stags are loaded, is an understatement, Bishop Miege, lead by former Kansas City Chiefs center Tim Grunhard, has a stable full of talent, featuring at least two potential Division 1 athletes and a host of others who will undoubtedly find themselves playing football or another sport at a college or university in the coming months.

The Mike Dumper lead Panthers are not devoid of talent, as Paola possesses a talented group of underclassmen at the skill positions, and are lead by a big and strong, senior dominated line, which for the most part this season has had little problem moving the football on the ground.

A closer examination of the Stags has to start with wide receiver Justin McCay. The 6’4”, 205 pound senior has committed to Oklahoma to play football, and is one of those players that every coach dreams of having on their squad.

“Justin is a one of a kind kid, he’s a once in a lifetime, maybe once in a coaching career kind of kid,” said Stags Head Coach Tim Grunhard. “Not only that, he’s just a great kid and had the heart of a true competitor.”

But, if the Stags were just built around McCay, the job of defending them on a day to day basis would be much easier. Unfortunately for the Panthers defensive coaches and players, the Stags are much deeper on the offensive side of the ball, including running back Bobby Germinder, quarterback Max Shortell and receiver Trevor Releford.

“Bobby Germinder may be our most valuable player this season,” Grunhard said. “He’s rushed for over 1,100 yards this year and did not start the first two games of the year.”

Germinder, a senior at 5’11” and 180 pounds takes handoffs from Max Shortell, a 6’5”, 185 pound junior. Grunhard calls Shortell a “big kid with a strong arm” who has been doing a good job of managing games for the Stags.

“Against Louisburg we threw the ball into the wind, and I think it surprised them a little,” Grunhard said. “Sometimes I think Max throws a better ball into the wind, because he has such a strong arm.”

As is the case with the Panthers, the best skill players in the world are no better than average if the team’s offensive line is not outstanding. Like the Panthers, the Stags have a big, strong and talented offensive line to open holes for Germinder and protect Shortell which allows him to get the ball to his receivers.

“Phil Ford (Junior, 6’5”, 305 pounds) is a big guy that can move, he’s not just a space eater,” Grunhard said. “Our center is an outstanding heavyweight wrestler, and our left tackle, Neil Shortell (Senior, 6’4”, 250 pounds) can both move well for big guys.”

The Miege offense is something which has not gone unnoticed by Panthers Head Coach Mike Dumpert.

“Their offense has he ability to grind you with the run, and quick strike you through the air,” Dumpert said. “The have a huge o-line that is talented and get after you, and they have gifted skill kids.”

The dual threat challenge pointed out by Dumpert was echoed by Grunhard when he assessed his teams offensive strategy.

“We like to be balanced,” Grunhard said. “If you try and take away McCay and the passing game, we’re going to try and run on you, if you leave McCay and try and take away the run, then we’ll try and throw it.”

The Panthers will counter with a defense that has been getting better each week. The Paola defense played one of its best games last Friday night at Eudora, where, for the most part, the Panthers completely dominated the Cardinals and avenged their week four loss to Eudora. Facing the Stags will present many more challenges, and for the Panthers to be competitive and look for a positive outcome, they will have to play their best game of the season. Eudora was able to score their first touchdown on a wide open pass play that appeared to have come on a missed defensive assignment in the secondary. Missed assignments, at this level of competition, will result in big plays and more often than not, touchdowns.

The Paola coaches and players both maintain they have yet to play a “complete” game, but that is exactly what will be required of the Panthers to slow the Stags. But, while the Stags are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, the Panthers are not exactly lacking in the talent department either, a fact not lost on coach Grunhard.

“Paola is playing with a lot of confidence and swagger,” Grunhard said. “Paola’s running backs and quarterback are formidable football players. I like their size, and coach Dumpert has his kids putting their heart and soul in everything they do.”

The Panthers will counter the Miege offense with a potent attack of their own, featuring Junior running back Skylar Hawkins who has carried for nearly 1,500 yards on the season. Complimenting Hawkins in the backfield are sophomore quarterback Seth Kern and sophomore running back Tyler Henness. Both Kern and Henness have multiple 100 yard rushing games this season. In last Friday’s 33-14 blowout of Eudora, the Panthers just missed having three backs with over 100 yards rushing, as Hawkins and Kern both cracked the century mark, while Henness fell just short at 96 yards.

The Panthers can move the ball on the ground, they have proven that time and time again this season, even against Gardner, the Panthers had success with the running game, the big question for this week will be can Paola work some passing plays into the offense and keep the Stags honest on the defensive side of the ball. Can the Panthers generate enough passing yards to keep Miege from stacking the box with eight or nine players in an effort to stop the high powered Panther running attack. The Panthers have shown this year, they are not afraid to throw the ball, and have, at times been successful, but those successes have been few and far between, and have not been frequent enough to scare anyone into thinking Paola is going to suddenly fill the air with footballs and rack up big numbers passing.

Even though the Panthers know Miege will stack the box and try and take away the Panthers bread and butter running attack, coach Dumpert will have his team prepared, and sees the challenge in going at the Stags with a power running game.

“Bishop Miege has a big, strong, aggressive defense,” he said. “They crowd the box, force you to win one on one match ups and they are relentless. Our offensive line will need to communicate, when they change their front, we must see it and adjust to allow for the best blocking angles, then fire off the ball and be tenacious.”

Many players on both teams play both offense and defense, so the names and numbers are interchangeable on either side of the ball, coach Grunhard mentioned three or four members of his defense in particular.

“Shane Ray, (6’4”, 230 pound Junior) has good size and quickness, and Neil Shortell lead the EKL in tackles behind the line of scrimmage,” Grunhard said. “Clancy Merrill (6’3”, 225 pound Senior) was a first team EKL selection and Stanton Weber (6’0”, 164 pound Junior) may be the smartest player on our team.”

But Grunhard was complimentary of the Paola defense too, specifically mentioning Luke Wilson a 6’2, 250 pound senior lineman who dominated the line of scrimmage against Eudora and Jesse Smail, a 6’5” 233 pound senior as two players who stood out to him from the films he had seen of the Paola team.

Both coaches gave similar assessments of the keys to coming away with a victory on Friday night, and this late in the season, a complex game really revolves around fairly simple principals.

First and foremost on both coaches minds was to protect the ball and limit turnovers. “We just can’t turn the ball over,” Grunhart said. Coach Dumpert reiterated the point further by saying “The ability to win games in November can usually be attributed to the teams ability to run the ball and limit turnovers.”

The second and third key points were to win the battle of field position, and to control the number and timing of penalties. “We can’t give up the short field,” Grunhard said. “We have to make the Panthers put together long drives.”

Controlling the line of scrimmage and protecting the quarterback were two more big keys for Grunhard and the Stags. “We have to be able to control the line on both sides of the ball, on offense to move the ball on the ground, and on defense to stop Paola’s running attack,” he said. “Plus we need to protect our quarterback so we can pick and choose when to pass.”

Both coaches, and both teams are looking for a high quality game, between two top opponents with state championship aspirations.

“Both teams are doing something right to be in the final four of their class,” Grunhard said. “It should be a great football game.”

Dumpert echoed the sentiment. “Bishop Miege represents a great challenge, and to be successful we must embrace the battle,” he said. “Hopefully our men are looking forward to being tested, and will play with heart and emotion, and at this time of the year, that is how it should be.”