Six weeks into the season, perhaps no area football team has shown more rapid improvement than the Whitmer Panthers.
Facing a coaching transition and the potential lingering effects from a 2-8 season, the Panthers have passed those tests and now look to compete for a City League championship and a third state playoff berth in four years.
Much of the positive impact at Whitmer (4-2, 3-0 CL) has been made by a group of juniors who play most of the skill positions on offense for new head coach Joe Palka.
I thought, by a year from now, we d be a pretty good team, said Palka. I knew we had some talented skill [position] kids, but I thought we had a ways to go in some other areas.
Palka, who succeeded Dan Fought as head coach, was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Eastern Michigan University last year. He had prior head coaching stints at Summerfield, Central Catholic (his alma mater) and Bryan high schools.
My plan was to just keep working to get better, get our systems in and, by the end of the year, I thought we could be a pretty good football team, Palka said. So, we re ahead of schedule.
The junior playmakers include quarterback Donnie Dottei, running backs Anthony Allen and DeWayne Frazier, tight end Kevin Koger and wideouts Jeremy Jones and Beau Norton, who have gelled with an all-senior offensive line.
After being blanked 10-0 by Tiffin Columbian in their opener, the Panthers began to click offensively midway through a 35-21 loss in the second week at Fremont Ross, which is 6-0 and ranked ninth in the Division I state poll.
Even when we lost those first two games, our kids really fought hard, Palka said. We ve seen the belief there all year. What s been nice is that we ve put some wins together to show that all that belief meant something.
Whitmer has piled up 140 points (35 per game) during its current four-game winning streak, which includes a 49-35 victory over Fostoria and a 21-17 win over St. Francis de Sales.
The Panthers, picked to finish sixth in the preseason CL coaches poll, have followed with a 35-14 win at Clay and a 35-16 victory at Woodward.
The skill kids have developed faster than I thought they would, Palka said. We still aren t doing all the things correctly that we need to do, but they re catching on faster than what I expected.
Dottei, who started at quarterback for most of the 2005 season, has become a multiple threat, combining strong passing skills with an aggressive running style.
That [Dottei s sophomore experience] helped but, if you watch tape from last year, he was under duress all the time, Palka said. Sometimes that s a negative experience for a quarterback.
We saw that his first couple games this year. Then I think he got his wheels underneath him, and now things have started to slow down for him on the field. He s definitely progressed.
Dottei has completed 47 of 90 passes for 704 yards and 10 touchdowns, plus rushed 77 times for 331 yards and five TDs.
Last year was really frustrating, Dottei said. We knew we had the talent but we just didn t have the experience. We got a lot of it last year. We had some sophomores starting and a lot of juniors. It was tough, but the losing just made you cherish the wins so much and made you want to work harder for the wins.
Allen, who played on the junior varsity last season, leads the City League in rushing with 731 yards on 97 carries, including seven TD runs. He has also caught eight passes for 160 yards and three scores.
Our biggest goal with Anthony is having him do all things the right way all the time, Palka said. That s on and off the field. He s done a good job of that this year and his play reflects that.
We want to make him a more complete football player, not just a fast running back, but a guy who can block and do all the little things right.
Did Allen expect such success?
Not this early, he said. I thought it would [come] later on. For me, it s just been a matter of me staying in school and coach Palka pushing me. We started believing after we played Fremont Ross. That s when I started believing.
The 6-foot-4, 220-poundKoger, a strong and athletic prospect who has already received a scholarship offer from the University of Toledo, is arguably Whitmer s top talent.
Kevin is a definite Division I [college] prospect and people are interested in him, Palka said. He needs to continue to progress, to get bigger and get stronger.
Obviously he has some speed, size, range and some jumping ability. He s hard to run against when he s to your side of the field on defense. He s also hard to contain one-on-one when he s trying to catch a pass.
Koger has caught 13 passes for a team-high 230 yards and three TDs. At defensive end, he s recorded 23 tackles, blocked three kicks and been a disruptive force to enemy offenses.
From the beginning of the season we ve been really excited because we opened up the offense, Koger said. Everybody wants to throw the ball more. But, even though we re throwing it more, we re still running it, too, and Anthony Allen and DeWayne Frazier are really good backs.
It was just growing pains last year. We just had to play through it, and we finally got a little better at our skill positions. Now we ve taken off.
Jones, a vocal team leader, has a team-best 14 receptions for 188 yards and three TDs, and Frazier, who spells Allen roughly every third possession, has contributed 59 carries for 280 yards.
For the record, the juniors make it clear that much of their success can be attributed to their beefy senior teammates up front center Ryan Ernst (5-10, 248), guards Steve Sumner (6-1, 252) and Justin Kluck (5-10, 210), and tackles Devon McCreary (6-2, 272) and Brett Keller (6-6, 290). Senior Rick Scherrer is the other starter at wideout.
We ve done good so far, but we haven t accomplished anything yet, Koger said. Nobody gave us much respect because we were 2-8 last year. So, we feel like we have to earn respect.
Contact Steve Junga at:firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6461.