There's really nothing to lose and plenty to gain for Maumee when it travels to rival Anthony Wayne tonight for a Northern Lakes League game.
Maumee was not expected to make a run at the league championship as Anthony Wayne was, before the start of the season.
But NLL opponents, beware.
The striding Panthers, ranked fifth in The Blade's Division II poll, have unveiled some surprising moxie through the first half of the season. They're 4-1 and are tied for first in the NLL with Anthony Wayne, The Blade's top-ranked Division II team, and Perrysburg, The Blade's top team in Division I.
“We've learned how to win,” said Maumee coach John Boles, whose team has won three in a row. “We've earned the right to win because we have worked really hard.
“At the same time, they're having fun. It's a lot of fun when you're winning.”
The Panthers have already outdone what they did a year ago when they finished at 3-7. With a 2-0 record in the NLL, they've already matched their win total in league games from last fall.
Their next big challenge comes tonight against the Generals (5-0, 2-0). Boles admits a win won't come easily against the team many think has a chance to finish the regular season without a loss.
“They're an outstanding running team and an outstanding defensive team,” Boles said of the Generals. “They're sound in every part of their game.
“It's a tough matchup for us. They're explosive. They break big plays with their running game, and their defense plays very aggressively. “
Yet the Panthers have proven to be a team eager for challenges this season. Their lone loss came against Central Catholic in the second week of the season, when they were struggling to protect the football. They turned the ball over 12 times during the first 10 quarters of the season, but have only one turnover since.
Alexander Reese, the Panthers' junior quarterback, struggled early, but has improved as the season has progressed. For the year he has completed 29 of 60 passes for 339 yards, including one touchdown and an untidy seven interceptions.
But Reese and his backfield teammates have played much better during the Panthers' current three-game win streak, which includes a 21-13 win over defending NLL champion Bowling Green a week ago.
Running backs Chris Jones and Kurt Kramp also have contributed to the cause, both averaging better than six yards a carry. Jones leads the Panthers' running game with 461 yards on 75 carries (6.1 ypc), including seven touchdowns. Kramp has rushed for 286 yards on 43 carries (6.7 ypc), and one touchdown.
Sean Halpin has been Reese's main target and leads the Panthers' receivers with 11 catches for 155 yards.
“I truly believe it's been a group effort to turn some things around,” Boles said.
Showing signs of improvement has taken some time during Boles' four years as Maumee's head coach. Many of the same faces that were part of last season's 3-7 team are still around. The offensive and defensive schemes haven't been overhauled. Yet work done during the off-season to improve as a team - physically and mentally - has been evident in the Panthers' play.
Boles always believed it was just a matter of time before they'd experience more pleasant times than the recent past.
“We've put in a lot of preparation for this. We've got some experience back, and a number of those who have played in the past are stronger and wiser. I'm proud of the way they've played.
Boles added: “I expected this to happen. In fact, I expected us to be even better than this.”
As for facing the Generals in what stands as their most significant game of the season, Boles expects to face a team comparable to 4-1 Central Catholic.
“Central was good, but this is our next-door neighbor and a league rival, so a lot of emotion will be involved in this game,” Boles said.
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