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As the Whitmer Panthers push to keep their unbeaten football season alive for at least another week, a familiar postseason opponent awaits at 7 p.m. Saturday at Mansfield's Arlin Field in a Division I regional final.
The third-ranked Panthers (12-0) will meet Massillon Washington, one of Ohio's most storied programs.
"We're going to have to execute at a high level," first-year Panthers coach Jerry Bell said. "Our special teams are going to play a huge factor. We have to avoid turning the ball over, and we have to create turnovers on defense."
Back in 2006, Whitmer faced the Tigers in a regional semifinal at Parma, taking a come-from-behind 14-10 victory on a late TD pass from Donnie Dottei to tight end Kevin Koger.
Then, in the opening round in 2010, Massillon came to Whitmer, where the host Panthers scored late to take a 28-24 win en route to a 12-2 season that ended with a loss to eventual D-I champion Lakewood St. Edward in the state semifinals.
The Panthers returned to the D-I semis last year, again falling to an eventual champion — Cleveland St. Ignatius — losing 17-6 to finish 13-1.
Since 2010, no other Ohio D-I team has played more postseason games than Whitmer's 10 (8-2 record), and it is that experience that has helped the current Panthers simply reload after graduating six of last year's standout players to Division I college programs.
"This group of seniors has been there," Bell said. "They know what it takes, and they're hungry and focused. They're biting at the bit, and they're ready to go. They seem to be extremely fired up. We can't wait for Saturday."
Despite the graduation losses, Whitmer won a fourth consecutive league championship (City League 2009-10; Three Rivers Athletic Conference 2011-12).
"We did lose a lot of talent," senior third-year starting linebacker Jack Linch said. "But we had motivation, and we worked hard in the off-season in the weight room, and hitting our playbooks.
"I think we're more of a team this year. We play as a team and we don't care who gets the credit as long as we win. Every practice and game helps. When you play in three straight regional finals, each time you're going to be a little less nervous, and a little more confident. We need to keep doing what we've been doing."
Added senior linebacker Nate Holley: "At the start of the year we weren't projected to be very good. But we always thought, and knew in our minds, that we could prove everybody wrong. Winning two playoff games makes that statement even more bold.
"Our senior class has played 41 football games [including next contest] in three years, and that shows a lot, staying alive in the playoff and getting more opportunities."
In Massillon the Panthers will be facing a complete team with supreme talent at the skill positions.
"They are loaded," Bell said. "They're a very good football team. They've got great skill guys and a very good offensive line. They've got a great tailback, and I don't think I've seen a quarterback who can throw the ball the way he can."
When the Tigers played Whitmer in 2010, the quarterback was sophomore Kyle Kempt. He is now a 6-foot-5, 200-pound senior.
Kempt is 176-of-261 passing for 2,805 yards this year, with 30 touchdown tosses and nine interceptions. He is the focal point of an offense that averages 414 yards per game (254 passing), and tops foes by an average score of 43-20 per contest.
Kempt's targets include receivers Gareon Conley (44 catches, 962 yards, 14 TDs), Marcus Whitfield (30-609, 5 TDs), Zach Volzer (29-387, 3 TDs), and Brody Tonn (21-287, 4 TDs).
Bringing balance is the ground threat of running back Ryne Moore (213 carries, 1,150 yards, 12 TDs).
The Tigers' defense has been led in tackles by linebackers Kentrell Taylor (65), Devon Ingram (62), and Dillon Cowan (55), and in interceptions by defensive backs Ernie Baez and Tonn (three each). The stoppers up front include ends J.D. Crabtree (56 tackles, 14 for losses) and Malik Dudley (28 tackles, 10 for losses).
Massillon has yielded 308 yards (161 rushing) per game to foes.
The Panther defense, which was surrendering just 6.8 points and 172 total yards per game entering that matchup, yielded 405 yards (304 passing) to Hudson despite the Whitmer defense forcing five Explorers turnovers.
Defensively, Whitmer is paced up front by senior tackles Marquise Moore (61 tackles, 11 for losses) and JoeNathan Mayes (67 tackles, 14 TFL), in the linebacking corps by seniors Linch (130 tackles, 11 TFL), Nate Holley (119 tackles, 12 TFL, 5 INTs), and Devin Thomas (108 tackles, 9 TFL), and in the secondary by junior Marcus Elliott (7 INTs).
Senior quarterback Nick Holley (Nate's twin brother), has been the backbone of the offense, completing 105 of his 166 passes for 1,450 yards and 20 TDs, and rushing 187 times for 1,633 yards and 19 TDs.
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.