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At the onset of the 2014 season, the Royal Valley football team is, at least in some ways, a blank slate. With a new head coach and new leaders, the Panthers will be molding a new identity while trying to erase the memory of a winless 2013 campaign.
Leaving that in the past is important, according to new coach, Jake Lott. So far, he said his players have looked content to do that as they have been focused on learning the new coach’s system despite less than ideal conditions.
“The weather was hot and it was bad, but we still managed to be upbeat and work and that’s about all you can ask for in the first week,” Lott said.
While the Panthers may be rebooting in 2014, the team won’t be entirely recasting. Lott noted there are some capable players returning to the squad who will fit in well in the new schemes. The commitment level of the players early on is another positive that is helping the Panthers adapt quickly.
“I think the offense fits them and defensively we’ve made some changes that I think really help our kids out,” Lott said. “They’re working hard and learning the new stuff and kind of seeing how it will help them. We’re excited.”
Senior running back Matthew Bailey is one of many returning Royal Valley players, along with three experienced senior linemen including Tristan Tessendorf, Chance Ogden and Jack Kutina. Junior Jarrett Roy also brings back some varsity experience along with the likes of Derrick Barger, Nick Ehrhart, Zach Lux and Garrett Shultz.
With the inclusion of Roy, the Panthers could be considered a veteran group across the line, which Lott said could be a big benefit for the team this fall. With that experience at the top, it will allow for the progression of some younger players who could make an impact down the road.
Also, Lott said the cohesiveness of the junior and senior class has been a positive for the team so far. Following a tough 2013 season, he said leadership would be crucial in 2014 and the upperclassmen have shared that load in an effective way.
“I think that was a question mark coming in, especially with how last year went. Some things had to change and mostly it had to change with leadership,” Lott said. “The seniors and juniors have set an expectation of working hard and wanting to turn it around and I think that kind of spread to the younger kids.”
While those upperclassmen will be anchors this fall, Lott noted some younger players have bought in and committed to the program over the summer and have given themselves a chance to make an impact on this team through their hard work.
Hard work may be the key theme of the season for the Panthers, too. Lott noted the split of Class 4A may give the Panthers an even playing field as they strive for postseason success, but he also noted it won’t be easy to break the streak that the Panthers are currently mired in following the 2013 season.
“I told them the first win to break our trend is going to be hard. We’re going to have to work hard for it,” Lott said.
Royal Valley didn’t make it any easier on itself, either, as the team scheduled a consistently strong Abilene squad and a McLouth team that has been running hot over the past two seasons in its non-conference schedule, not to mention the tough Big Seven League competition that awaits the team this fall.
Getting back into the habit of winning starts with the mindset, Lott said, and once the Panthers know that feeling of winning again he said good things would come for the team.
So, in line with that, the Panthers are keeping team goals pretty simple this season and are focused on fighting for a winning record this season. While Lott said the opportunities are there, he also noted the Panther players will have to work for it, especially with Royal Valley still slotted in with Holton in district play.
On top of getting back that winning feeling, Lott said keys for the season include staying healthy and bringing along some younger players as Royal Valley has some smaller junior and senior classes.
The good thing is that this team is very compatible, according to Lott. There are a lot of team players who cheer each other on and push each other at practice and Lott said that could be a big positive for Royal Valley this fall.
“They’re really in it together. They work hard and they push each other and they hold each other accountable. That’s what you need on a good team,” Lott said. “Those kids love to compete. If we just come in every week and compete, I think good things will happen for us.”
Lott noted he tries to build a competitive edge into each practice drill because of that. He also said he looks for a certain work effort each day, because he knows if the players reach the coach’s standards then the team will eventually see good things happen in return.
When will those good things start happening? That is the question for Royal Valley. If the team clicks right away and all the new offensive and defensive schemes are executed well on the field from the start, the success could start immediately. There’s also a chance that it could take the Panthers a couple of weeks to click during games.
Winning is high on the Panthers’ list of priorities, though, and Lott said both the coaches and players are committed to fighting for that every day. The fight officially begins when Royal Valley opens the season at home against Abilene on Friday, Sept. 5.
Returning starters/letter winners:
Matthew Bailey, sr., RB/LB
Tristan Tessendorf, sr., OL/DE
Chance Ogden, sr., OL/DE
Jack Kutina, sr., OL/DL
Jarrett Roy, jr., OL/DL
Derrick Barger, jr., RB/SS
Nick Ehrhart, jr., WR/CB
Zach Lux, jr., QB/SS
Garrett Shultz, jr., FB/LB