First-year Whitmer football coach Jerry Bell noted in the preseason that his defense would be crucial to his team's success.
Having graduated six players who moved on to Division I college programs, including four first-team All-Ohioans, Bell was still confident he could rely on his six returning defensive starters to lead the Panthers' quest to repeat as Three Rivers Athletic Conference champions.
Midway through the season, the defense has not only lived up to those expectations, but surpassed them.
"Going into our season we knew that our defense was going to be the heart and soul of our football team," Bell said. "We knew we had a solid linebacking corps, and we knew Marquise Moore was going to be pretty good.
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"We had some questions in the secondary and at defensive end. What we did was create a battle all summer long at those positions. We pushed those kids and made them compete for those jobs. They have stepped up and it seems to be working out pretty well."
Now that the Panther offense is also close to full throttle, it appears the team will be a title contender for the fourth straight season.
Whitmer is 5-0 (2-0 TRAC), has outscored its opposition 195-23, and is ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press Division I state poll. For its part, the defense has been downright stingy, yielding just 144 yards and 4.6 points per game.
Anchoring the defensive line are senior tackles Moore and Joenathan Mays. The linebacking corps includes seniors Jack Linch, Nate Holley, and Devin Thomas. The lone returnee in the secondary is junior strong safety Marcus Elliott.
Linch, a third-year starter, leads the team in tackles with 56, has one sack, four tackles for loss, and one interception.
"Last year we built depth," Linch said. "[Backup] players got experience because we won so many games by a big margin. So we have some experienced guys, and we worked real hard in the off-season to get stronger and faster.
"We run to the football extremely well. If somebody misses a tackle, somebody else is right there. It's a team defense and we all just do our assignments."
Added Bell: "Jack Linch is a dominant player who has a knack for finding the football. He's a quiet leader."
Nate Holley, the twin brother of quarterback Nick Holley, is next in tackles with 46, and has three sacks and three TFLs.
"We expected to be good, and the reason we have been good is that we play as a team," Nate Holley said. "It's not about ‘I,' it's about the whole defense. We're looking for a state championship. That's the goal."
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"Nate Holley has got a motor that never stops," Bell said. "He'll hit you. He's fast and physical."
Thomas has contributed 38 tackles, a sack and four TFLs.
"We knew we were going to be the bread and butter of the team," Thomas said. "We're just a bunch of hard-working guys. We practice so hard, and the coaches are always putting us in the right positions."
Bell said of the 5-foot-10, 160-pound senior: "If you look at Devin Thomas, he doesn't look like a linebacker-type kid at a D-I program. But he does everything right. He's a technician at everything he does."
The 6-foot-1, 285-pound Moore, who has committed to the University of Toledo, has 25 tackles, five sacks and nine TFLs.
"We fly to the ball," Moore said. "Our coaches tell us to find the ball, even if the play is downfield. That's what we work on, and conditioning.
"I think we're ahead of what we thought we could be. We play pretty good team defense."
Added Bell: "Marquise Moore is an animal. His quickness off the ball is amazing, and he battles with his hands all the time. Once he gets into you, you're going backwards."
Mays has added 21 tackles, one sack and seven TFLs, and Elliott has contributed a secondary-leading 24 tackles and a team-best two interceptions.
"Joenathan Mays is the fastest kid I've ever seen off the snap of the football," Bell said, "and he just hustles everywhere until the end of the play.
"Marcus Elliott goes about things quietly in the defensive backfield, and he's a very physical football player. He's really good in coverage."
Added Bell: "Curt Hartman, our defensive coordinator, has done a phenomenal job with these guys. He gets them to compete. It's very intense in practice. He challenges them every day with certain goals. He's ramped things up."
The collective experience of the six returnees has helped the new defensive-end rotation of Al Bryant, Jacob LaPoint and Robert Sobecki adjust to the starting lineup along with cornerbacks Devon Miller and Mike Moore (Marquise's brother), and free safety Josiah Kanyion. All six are seniors who learned plenty playing backup roles to some of the area's best football talent.
"What it comes down to is that they all do their jobs," Bell said. "They're very good at reading where the run is going. They play downhill. They're fast and physical. Even if they make a mistake, there's another guy there to help cover. They all hustle to the football."
With the defense setting a tone of excellence, the Whitmer offense has been able to develop gradually.
The Panthers opened with a 60-0 rout of Start. In week 2, Whitmer beat Detroit Catholic Central 19-7, and in week 3 took a 20-3 win over Bishop Luers from Fort Wayne. The last two Fridays the Panthers have dominated St. Francis de Sales 47-7 and St. John's Jesuit 49-6.
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The Whitmer offense is paced by senior quarterback Nick Holley, who is 42-of-63 passing for 523 yards and eight touchdowns. He has also rushed 76 times for a team-best 668 yards and eight TDs.
Senior running backs Me'Gail Frisch (69 rushes, 346 yards, 5 TDs) and Tre Sterritt (25 rushes, 166 yards, 4 TDs), and junior wideout Chris Boykins (14 receptions, 226 yards, 6 TDs) are the Panthers' other top threats.
Whitmer travels to Clay (3-2, 1-1) for a TRAC contest Friday, before hosting Findlay (4-1, 1-1). A showdown looms at Central Catholic (5-0, 2-0) in week 10.
"I like where we're at but our philosophy here is getting better one game at a time," Bell said. "We don't look ahead. It's all about us getting one day better each day. If we don't do that, we're going to get beat."
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter @JungaBlade.