Last season, a very talented senior class left an exclamation point on the Panther Valley football program!
Led by the three-headed monster of quarterback Casey Lawrence, running back Kyle McAvoy and wide receiver Jake Dunn, the Panthers averaged nearly 30 points per game (29.1) and finished the year with a 9-3 overall record (their best season since 1992 when they finished 10-3).
In addition, Panther Valley finished 7-1 in the Anthracite Football League, and if not for an undefeated North Schuylkill squad (which defeated PV by four points in the regular season and needed three overtimes to win its playoff match-up), the Panthers would have been League Champions and quite possibly could have been District Champions.
However, one year after punctuating a dream season, the Panthers enter 2010 in complete rebuilding mode with a roster full of question marks?
"Even with losing all those seniors, we're still looking to be competitive," stated Panther Valley head coach Frank Damian. "We know it's going to be an uphill battle and we're going to be young in a lot of spots, but we're not looking at that as a negative."
"We were in the exact same situation three years ago and things turned out okay for us," added Damian. "We're going to get these kids on the field and get them game experience with the hopes of being successful this year, as well as building for our future."
With the loss of 15 seniors, the Panthers return just four two-way starters from a season ago and bring back only 12 returning letter winners.
"I don't care who you are, it's tough to replace two All-Staters, the area's top quarterback and a lot of other great football players and expect to see the same results," conceded Damian. "This year, we're not looking to replace all those players, but rather, we're looking for other kids to step up and make their own marks in our program."
Despite the drastic turnover in personnel, the one constant that will remain for the Panthers is the return of the "Pistol" offense.
This year's trigger-man is junior Joe Revel, who quarterbacked the Panther Valley JV team last season. Revel is an elusive athlete who can present a threat with both his arm and legs, something that is a necessity in the Pistol offense.
Joining Revel in the backfield will be senior Josh Vega. Last season, Vega rushed 20 times for 149 yards in limited action.
"We are looking for Josh to carry the load for us this year," said Damian. "He's one of the fastest and strongest kids on the team and we're going to look to him for leadership out there both offensively and defensively."
Catching the pigskin for the Panthers will be juniors Mike Weaver and Nick McArdle.
Also looking to contribute in the receiving game are wide receiver Kevin Dunn and tight end Brock Mitchell, a huge target at 6-5. Weaver returns the most experience out of the group with six receptions for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
The offensive line will be a work in progress as the Panthers must replace four of five starters from a season ago. The only returning starter up front is junior Anthony Staivecki, and he's switching positions to center after starting at offensive tackle last season. Joining Staivecki in the trenches will be tackles John Owens and Frank Celentano and guards Dylan Smith and John Horvath. Panther Valley will be outsized in most games as they average just 5-10 and 191 pounds across the line.
"We're definitely not as big as we were last year, but again, our scheme is based on using our speed and our athleticism instead of going out there and trying to overpower people."
On defense, Panther Valley returns 4 of 11 starters to its 4-3 base defense that allowed opponents 11.9 points per game last season.
The Panthers are very experienced at defensive end with the return of starters Brock Mitchell and Anthony Staivecki. Joining them inside are tackles Dylan Smith and Frank Celentano.
At linebacker, Panther Valley will be very young and inexperienced as they will replace three senior starters with two sophomores (Rich Smith and Paul Mika) and a freshman (Lukas Damian).
Seeing action at cornerback will be Josh Vega and Nick McArdle, while Devon Dillard will join Mike Weaver as the starting safeties.
"We really need to rely on our defensive ends and our secondary for leadership this year," noted Damian. "Our defensive tackles are strong but inexperienced and our linebackers are extremely young."
One thing that might play in the Panthers' favor in an otherwise rebuilding season is a drop in District classification from Class AA to Class A. Should the Panthers make the playoffs, they will no longer have to compete against North Schuylkill, Tamaqua or Northern Lehigh, three teams expected to compete for a District Title. Instead, Panther Valley will set their sights on smaller schools like Tri-Valley, Schuylkill Haven and Shenandoah Valley.
"I think the drop down to Class A gives us a little better opportunity to succeed, especially with us being such a young team this year," said Damian. "But overall, we're just hoping to improve every day by taking one step, one practice and one game at a time. Patience is the key word this season."