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Published: Friday, 10/2/2009

Panthers, Knights have a lot at stake


As if a Whitmer-vs.-St. Francis de Sales football matchup needs any additional buildup, tonight's 7 o'clock battle of state-ranked unbeatens at Whitmer will have more at stake than just the usual bragging rights.

Coach Joe Palka's Whitmer Panthers are ranked ninth in the Ohio Division I state poll and currently sit in the No. 1 slot in the Region 2 computer ratings. Coach Dick Cromwell's Knights come in ranked No. 5 in the D-II state poll and No. 1 in the Region 6 computer ratings.

Both teams are 5-0 overall and 2-0 in CL play. The winner gets a leg up in the chase for a CL title, holds or elevates its spot in the state poll and, most importantly,

earns lots of computer points.

"The first thing that stands out to me about St. Francis is special teams, especially their kicking game," said Palka, who is 3-0 versus the Knights since taking the Whitmer post in 2006. "With [kicker-punter] Pat Dyer they can put you in bad field position all night, and make you drive the length of the field.

"Second, they play great defense every year, and this year is no exception. Also, [tailback] Lee Lukasik runs really hard, and they're good enough to hit the big passing play on you with [receiver] Scott Loy."

Whitmer has outscored its five foes 175-71, and St. Francis has topped its opponents 129-39, but Palka isn't counting on a high-scoring affair tonight. Head-to-head results from the last five meetings support his case.

The Panthers beat St. Francis 14-7 last season, 24-17 in overtime in 2007, and 21-17 in 2006. The Knights won 20-3 in 2005 and 12-7 in 2004.

"We need to be able to put long drives together, stay mistake-free and not give up the big play," Palka said. "Also, we cannot let them possess the ball all night, and they're good at doing that."

Whitmer quarterback Joe Missler is 37-of-70 passing for 565 yards and three TDs, and leads the team in rushing with 476 yards on 76 attempts with five TDs.

Bookend 6-1, 210-pound running backs Teryl Mershon (63 carries, 436 yards, two TDs) and Micha Merritt (59 carries, 306 yards, 13 TDs) bolster the ground attack, and Mike Pfaff (16 catches, 281 yards) and Tevin Boykin (nine catches, 177 yards) are Missler's top targets.

Cromwell has the same concerns most opposing coaches share regarding Whitmer.

"It's tough to defend them with all the formations they use and with their good quarterback, two good running backs, and good receivers," Cromwell said. "Then they also have [Randall] Kennedy, who does a little bit of everything.

"It's tough to scheme anything against them with all of those weapons. Also, they've got a lot back on defense, and they've been playing really well."

Lukasik has rushed 68 times for 439 yards and scored five TDs. Loy has 11 catches for 236 yards and four TDs, and QB Tyler Johnston has completed 13 of 33 passes for 238 yards and three scores.

"Anytime we play Whitmer or St. John's or Central it's a big game, but it's a lot nicer to be 5-0 going into one of these games," Cromwell said. "We know we have to score and keep scoring because one or two touchdowns probably won't be enough to do it."

- Steve Junga

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