Fourth-year Whitmer coach Joe Palka recalls vividly the last time his Panthers met perennial Ohio power Canton McKinley on a football field. But just in case he might forget, a good reminder resides a few miles away at the University of Toledo in the person of Rockets running back Morgan Williams.
It was Williams who, on Nov. 17, 2006, ran for 217 yards and five touchdowns as third-ranked McKinley defeated Whitmer 49-7 in the Division I regional final.
"He left an indelible memory, that's for sure," Palka said. "That memory is fresh in all the kids' minds in our program because they were all part of it at some level. We haven't forgotten about that, and this is a very similar team to what they had back then. They're big, fast and physical, and they play great defense."
City League champion Whitmer (9-1), Ohio's eighth-ranked D-I team and the top seed in Region 2, plays host to McKinley's Bulldogs (6-4) at
7 p.m. Saturday in a first-round playoff game.
"Obviously we're excited," Palka said of Whitmer's third playoff berth in his four seasons. "We felt that, with the schedule we've played this year, with almost every game being a big game, that would help us come playoff time.
"We hope that's true, and it's great to prepare for a playoff game having won the City championship as well. That's a little different for us. We point to this time of year and are excited to be back here."
In a banner year for City League football, Whitmer was one of four league teams to earn, not only playoff berths, but first-round home games.
"I think it's fantastic," Palka said, "and it was reflected in how all the teams played this year. This was probably the best the City League has done in nonleague play in a long time. We've got three teams that are 9-1 and one that's 8-2, and we had some close, competitive battles with all those teams.
"I think it's well-deserved and it shows what kind of coaching and talent and programs we have in the City League and northwest Ohio right now."
The Bulldogs, who were rated 13th in the Region 2 computer standings after nine weeks, vaulted up the to secure the final playoff spot thanks to a 35-21 home win over Massillon Washington. That win enabled McKinley to tie Hudson for the No. 8 spot, and the Bulldogs won the tie-breaker based on having more third-level points.
"It doesn't really matter where you're seeded," Palka said. "Anybody that gets into the top eight is going to be pretty good, and they're no exception. They way we look at it is, what have they done lately. Well, they're playing their best football of the year right now.
"They just beat Youngstown Boardman and Massillon Washington in consecutive weeks, so that's pretty impressive. They're an outstanding team and they play such good competition."
The Panthers counter with their chief strength, a sturdy defense anchored up front by one of Ohio's top defensive end duos - 6-5, 250-pound junior Kenny Hayes (42 tackles, seven sacks) and 6-5, 240-pound sophomore Chris Wormley (58 tackles, six sacks).
Highlighting the second wave of the Panther defense are veteran senior linebackers Corey Compton (63 tackles) and Shane Brown (55 tackles), and the secondary includes veteran Jacob Noon (56 tackles) and interception leaders T.J. Rowland and Mark Meyers, who have three picks apiece.
"We played as good of defense or better than we have since I've been here," Palka said. "The defense has kept us in games. On offense, we've had three or four guys who have really stepped up and carried the load. It's been a complete team effort, and we've played great on special teams.
"Our mental toughness on the team is really strong, and that was forged by the big games we had week in and week during the regular season."
Offensively, Whitmer is triggered by its senior duo of multitasking quarterbacks, Joe Missler and Randall Kennedy, whose combined presence in the backfield keeps opposing defenses guessing.
Missler, who has missed some time with injury, still leads the team in rushing with 802 yards on 138 carries, and has completed 62 of 118 passes for 856 yards and five TDs. Kennedy has ably alternated in, adding 302 yards and three TDs rushing, plus 350 yards and four TDs passing.
The leading rusher at running back is senior Teryl Mershon (122 carries, 697 yards, 5 TDs), and senior Micah Merritt has been the short-yardage closer with 412 rushing yards and a team-high 17 TDs. The receiving corps is paced by wideout Mike Pfaff (23 catches, 392 yards, 4 TDs) and tight end Tevin Boykin (16 catches, 375 yards, 4 TDs).