By Ray Hamill … The McKinleyville Panthers will be as eager as any local squad to begin the season after fielding a team for just three games in 2017.
Injuries and locker-room problems took their toll on the team, but head coach Keoki Burbank and his staff believe this year’s roster is ready to turn the corner and represent the program.
“I just like the energy these guys bring,” Burbank said after last weekend’s preseason jamboree at Mack High. “As a team, they want to be better. When you have a losing program for so long, it’s easy to get complacent, but I think we have a group of guys who want to be a part of changing this football program.”
With the realignment of the Humboldt-Del Norte League this year, the Panthers will play in the Little 4 for the first time since 2010, matching up against similar sized opposition in terms of roster numbers.
“It definitely helps,” the head coach said. “I think our schedule allows us to be in the mix with these teams. We’re facing opponents more our roster size, and that’s better for us.”
The Panthers have not posted a winning season since 2008, when they competed in the Little 5, as it was then. But this season’s schedule and the attitude of the players in preseason suggests they may be able to buck that trend in 2018.
Key to that turnaround will be the presence of senior linemen Nick Barnett and Nate Ballew, who will anchor the offensive line alongside impressive junior Tom Locatelli.
“We’re expecting big things from him on both sides of the ball,” Burbank said of Locatelli.
Seth Whitwell is a first-time football player who has, in his coach’s words, “come a long long way,” and will start at left tackle.
Another junior, Connor Lorrenzen, will start at center.
At quarterback, senior Rylin Grow and junior Jack Patton have been battling it out in the preseason, the latter of whom starred for the JVs in 2017.
At running back, the Panthers will look to three players to carry the load, senior Kameron Conlin, and juniors Kaden Redner and Caleb Martinez.
Conlin started in the backfield for the three games last season, while Martinez rushed for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns for the JVs.
All three, however, are expected to see plenty of game time in 2018.
At receiver, meanwhile, Burbank will look to senior Russell Dees and junior Che Jimenez.
Another Mack player to look out for in 2018 is junior Michael Boatright, who will start at corner and is coming off an impressive showing at last weekend’s scrimmage.
“Definitely our strength is who we have up front,” Burbank said.
Making things more challenging for the Panthers this fall is the fact they will have only three home games due to anticipated work on their field which never materialized.
Still, just fielding a team feels good for the Mack coaches.
“It’s definitely better than last year,” Burbank said. “We’re feeling good about things. There are a lot of high expectations, but at the same time we still have a lot of growing to do, and we have to keep getting better every day.”
Most importantly, Burbank has seen a shift within the locker room.
“We have some seniors who have shown some great leadership, which we didn’t have last year,” he said.
Burbank will be joined on the sidelines by assistants Rudy Garcia, Fel Barlow, Nick Jonte, David Seda and Duenn Willis.
The Panthers open the season at St. Vincent de Paul on Aug. 18.
Aug. 18 at St. Vincent de P 2 p.m.
Aug. 25 at St. Bernard’s 1 p.m.
Sept. 7 at Elsie Allen 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 14 Healdsburg 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 21 at Arcata 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 Ferndale 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 5 Hoopa Valley 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 12 Arcata 7 p.m.
Oct. 19 at Ferndale 2 p.m.
Oct. 26 at Hoopa Valley 7:30 p.m.