By Ray Hamill — It’s been a productive training camp so far for the McKinleyville Panthers, but just how far this football team has progressed won’t be known for sure until they face some adversity after the season gets under way.
Last year the Panthers were 2-8, including an 0-6 mark in the Little 4, but failed to answer the call in several games despite showing early signs of promise.
This year head coach Keoki Burbank hopes his players have learned from that and will be ready to take the next step.
And if early indications are anything to go by, the Panthers should be a more competitive team in 2019.
“I think we’ve just got to be a little more consistent,” Burbank said. “We’ve got to have a better mentality. There’s always going to be one or two plays that don’t go your way, and if we can just respond better, we’ll be competitive.
“I think it’s the next step in the growth of our program.”
Ready to challenge
The Panthers certainly showed signs of being competitive in 2018, but a group of players that had played just three games the previous season, before the program was folded for the year, displayed a lack of experience late in games.
This year, with numbers up and a solid offseason program under their belts, the Panthers appear ready to challenge any team in the Little 4.
“I think the intensity they’ve brought is better,” Burbank said. “This is a senior-heavy team and I think they feel that. I think they want to go out and give everything they’ve got to give.”
So far so good, and a squad of 48 — including 22 varsity players — is off to a flying start since camp began at the outset of last week.
“They’ve been going really hard, and I’m super proud of our guys,” the fourth-year head coach said. “Both levels have been really kicking butt.
“It’s been the best first week I’ve had at McKinleyville in my time here. I think they’re learning to work hard all the time.”
It’s also the largest squad Burbank has had in his four years with the program.
Key returning players
Key to the Panthers’ success this season will be the play of a handful of key returning players, none more so than Tom Locatelli.
The senior dual lineman has become a big-time leader for the team.
Also back is starting quarterback Jack Patton, who has shown plenty of improvement from his junior year, his first full season playing the position.
Patton’s continued development will be pivotal for the Panthers this fall, but he should have a big upside as he gains more and more experience.
“I feel like he’s improved a lot,” Burbank said of the senior signal caller.
Patton was also one of the team’s top shutdown DBs in 2018.
In the backfield, wing back Caleb Martinez returns and is expected to carry much of the load after impressing a year ago as a junior, while senior fullback Kyler Carr will see more carries this fall after closing out last season strong.
More importantly, Carr’s presence will be felt at middle linebacker after finishing third in the entire NCS in tackles as a junior with 123.
Another senior, Che Jimenez, looks set for a breakout season at receiver, as well as at cornerback.
“He’s looked very solid,” Burbank said of Jimenez. “He’s looking a lot more explosive.”
All five of those stars have stepped up this preseason.
“They’ve been doing a really good job of setting the tempo,” Burbank said. “I think this group is finally getting it.”
The Panthers open the season at home to St. Vincent de Paul on Friday August 23, and will play their home games at HSU’s Redwood Bowl due to ongoing construction on their own field.