Panthers football preps for uncertain season
Unsure if they will get to take the field this fall, the boys on the Middle Park football team are more worried about what’s in front of them right now: Clear Creek.
At the indoor soccer dome July 1, their numbers were small as the quarterback took snaps and threw to his receivers for an informal summer practice among the boys. Their timing needed some work, and too many passes fell to the ground. But that’s what practice is for, right?
At the high school football field Wednesday night, the atmosphere was a bit more serious as the players and coaches met for the first time. There were a few more players than before, and they went over the new requirements for coming together as a team — things like temp checks and new sanitization standards — before running through a few light drills.
Come the regular season — if there is one in 2020 — the Panthers will want to have all their glitches and more ironed out. That’s why they’re also getting into the weight room nowadays; the team seems to know that limiting mistakes is a good way to rack up wins, along with strength training and conditioning.
But wins might be a tall order, not necessarily because of the Panthers’ strength of schedule, but because of the opponent that’s threatening everyone’s season.
“(The boys) are having to deal with a lot of stuff they’ve never had to deal with before,” Middle Park football coach Jason Nagel said.
The Colorado High School Activities Association has deemed football a high-risk sport with the close contact heightening the risk of spreading COVID-19.
With state and federal officials’ guidelines still coming out, many schools are carving out plans for how students might return to learning next month. As a result, CHSAA has left the door open for a ruling on fall sports as early as later this month.
“That is the estimated timeline but we aren’t the only organization on the state, health, education official’s agenda,” CHSAA Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green wrote in a Q&A on Twitter last week. “Resuming education is the priority and we will support and compliment the direction of our member schools when they have definitives.”
For Middle Park football, what’s definitive is what’s in front of the Panthers. Until they hear different, that’s a schedule with key matchups vs. Faith Christian, The Pinnacle, Estes Park and D’Evelyn. If plans hold, the Panthers kickoff the campaign Aug. 28 at Clear Creek.
“We’re still planning to start practice in August, but there’s talk it could get canceled or that we’ll start football springtime or late fall,” said junior Gavin Neiberger, who’s expected to snap into the starting quarterback’s job following Gabe Loberg’s graduation.
“It’s definitely a huge thing to come into,” Neiberger said of the opportunity, “but I’m excited for it.”
Look for him to connect with junior Jackson Cimino, who will lead a crop of young receiving targets. In addition to Cimino at tight end, Middle Park has four offensive linemen who started games for the team last year.
“That will be nice,” coach Nagel said of the experience on his O-line. “But everyone knows you can never have enough offensive linemen.”
As one of Middle Park’s featured backs, senior Ben Opatril will be expected to carry a heavy load for the Panthers, though he will get help with junior Davis Emery and senior Robert Graham joining him in backfield. With the team running a three running back formation, Nagel is calling the trio Middle Park’s “three headed monster.”
The uncertainty of not knowing what could happen is weighing heavy on the team, Opatril said, but they can’t think about that right now.
“I’m going to train hard, work hard, try to get bigger, faster, stronger and plow through some kids this year,” he said of his focus.
And his coach wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Right now, we’re just focused on installing the offense, refining the defense and focused on our first game, which is at Clear Creek on Aug. 28th,” Nagel said.
If Middle Park has its way, the offense will be aided by a stingy defense anchored by senior middle linebacker Cameron Conger.
“I feel like defense brings the team together more than anything else because you’re constantly hitting people and that just gets the entire team hyped up,” Conger said.
Other returning starters include Cameron Kirwin, Champ Stuart, Dillon Engz and Opatril. After breaking his hand last year, coach Nagel is also expecting big things, including team leadership, from senior Jordyn Rowold.
Still, graduation hit the Panthers on D, and there are some starting slots up for grabs for younger players, just as there are on offense.
On special teams, coach Nagel thinks fans might want to keep an eye out for senior kicker Katie MacKendrick. He plans for her to handle the Panthers’ kickoff, punt and field goal duties. If she gets the chance for a long field goal, Nagel has confidence she can drill it.
“She’s got a really strong leg,” he said.
So much remains up in the air for the fall season, but the Panthers don’t want to go into it unprepared. As much as anything, Opatril said he hopes the community will share his and his teammates’ excitement. The Panthers are hoping to make the playoffs and have a good team this year.
“The boys are definitely putting in the work, and we’re definitely trying to put on a show this year,” he said.
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