It is a new dawn for the Whitmer football program this year as the Panthers enter the 2009 season stronger than they were a year ago.
With more experience comes greater expectations, a fact not lost on fourth-year head coach Joe Palka and his players.
Whitmer returned just three offensive and two defensive starters entering 2008. It started last season losing all three nonleague games before winning six of the next eight games against City League foes.
One of those CL losses was to Central Catholic in which the Irish (10-1, 7-0) rallied from a 14-0 deficit, scoring a late field goal to prevail 24-21. The other loss was 28-17 to St. John's Jesuit, one the Panthers avenged four weeks later with a 42-28 win over the Titans in the CL's Hall of Fame game.
“We developed a lot of depth and experience on defense, and we also learned what we could do with our quarterback and some of our offensive skill players,” Palka said of the benefits of the '08 season.
“It certainly gave us confidence at the end of the year to beat a team that had beaten us earlier in the season.
“Really, our last few games were strong ones for us. That really jump-started us to know that we had some potential for the next year.”
Whitmer (6-5, 5-2 CL last year) returns five starters on offense and eight on defense this year.
Most notable are senior quarterback Joe Missler, who leads Whitmer's spread offense as a proven run-pass threat, and four players who anchor the defense.
That quartet includes junior end Kenny Hayes, senior linebackers Corey Compton and Shane Brown, and senior safety Jacob Noon.
The 6-1, 198-pound Missler, who opened this season with 131 yards rushing and 121 more passing in a 35-7 win at Tiffin Columbian last Friday, ran for 549 yards and passed for 1,345 and 10 TDs as a junior. He scored one TD rushing last week.
“We came together as a team a lot more toward the end of the year,” Missler said.
“At the beginning, we had a lot of younger guys who never really played together before a whole lot. Coming into this year we're a lot more confident in ourselves.
“It's always a work in progress, but we started off way farther ahead this year than we were last year at this time.”
Hayes, 6-5 and 240 pounds, verbally committed to Ohio State University this week. He was a first-team All-City defensive selection last year, when he made 43 tackles, including eight sacks and four other tackles for losses.
“It was fun last year,” Hayes said. “We kept on getting better as a team through the year, and our whole defense just got great. I think this team has a lot of potential because we go hard every day in practice, and we fly to the ball. Everybody flies to the ball.”
The 6-1, 220-pound Compton, who had 71 tackles in 2008, and Noon, who had 58 stops plus a team-best three interceptions, each received second-team All-City recognition. Both are third-year starters.
“I play free safety, so I'm the last line of defense,” Noon said.
“But actually I'm more of a run stopper than a pass stopper. Since I don't have a lot of size [5-8, 170] I've just got to fly around and go low at people.”
At 5-11, 185 pounds, Brown was the Panthers' leading tackler in '08 with 73.
“This is a pretty focused team, and I credit a lot of it to our off-season strength and conditioning segment,” Palka said.
“We really felt that we had a great winter, and then we had a strong [preseason] camp. We went long and hard. We were a little dinged up, but that forced us to get some other kids ready in some depth roles.
“It's a hungry team that's out to try and gain some respect.”
Before they take on City League foes, the Panthers have a big collision scheduled at 7 tonight against visiting Fremont Ross and another nonleague battle next week at Fostoria.
Whitmer followers from Palka's first three seasons will remember the Panthers' thrilling 21-17 comeback road win over the Ross Little Giants in the first round of the 2006 playoffs.
What they might forget, however, is that Fremont has beaten the Panthers three straight years in the regular season — 35-21 in 2006, 23-21 in 2007, and 34-14 last year.
Whitmer's last regular-season win over Ross (35-7) occurred in 2002 when the two schools were still competing in the now-defunct Great Lakes League.
“They're a great football team,” Palka said of Ross, “maybe the best in northwest Ohio with the guys they have back and all the kids at the skill positions.
“We rarely see speed like they have in the secondary and at receiver, and they have a three-year starter at quarterback [Cody Foos] who beat us as a sophomore. It's a tough matchup for us, but I also think we have a chance, and I think it should be a great football game.”
One big void the Panthers need to fill is the graduation loss of running back Julian Nash (1,215 rushing yards, 21 TDs). Last week Whitmer got two rushing TDs apiece from bookend 6-1, 210-pound running backs Teryl Mershon, a transfer from Waite, and Micah Merritt.
Contact Steve Junga at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6461.