NAPPANEE — The NorthWood Panthers were a few yards short of reaching the Class 4A regionals last season as an unbeaten and top-ranked football team.
Now, despite the graduation of Mr. Football finalist Bronson Yoder, Panther head coach Nate Andrews begins his sixth season as the defending Northern Lakes Conference champion and one of the favorites to repeat.
"We just have to go out with out chest out, chin up and our eyes open every game this year,'' Andrews said. "We have some good players back, now it's a matter of them maximizing their potential once we get going on Friday nights.''
The hole Yoder leaves is, of course, immense. Playing mostly at quarterback. Yoder rushed for 2,310 yards and 28 touchdowns, while also throwing for 427 yards and six scores. Just for good measure, Yoder – now at William & Mary – caught 12 passes and scored twice.
Filling his shoes at quarterback will be junior Nate Newcomer, who did see playing time there last season. Newcomer completed 24 of his 43 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for 558 yards on 95 carries playing both as a back and a quarterback.
"It's good that we got Nate into a lot of meaningful games and situations last season,'' Andrews said. "He'll be starting at quarterback for the first time, but it won't all be new to him.''
The strength of this year's Panther team should be the running back position, which is both deep and talented.
Senior Jaden Miller is the top returning rusher after gaining 625 yards last season (10.9 average), while classmate Veshon Malone returns after averaging 6.9 yards-per-carry, before getting hurt against Plymouth late in the season. Ben Metasch and Eddie Hildebrant also return with experience in the backfield.
In NorthWood's run-first offense, Miller is the leading returning receiver with 18 catches last season. Tight ends Jake Lone and Jason Borkholder, along with junior receiver Kyle Sellers should also be top targets for Newcomer.
The offensive line is being rebuilt this season, with just two starters returning in Garrett Anglemyer and Braedon Marshall. However, Marshall could miss at least the season-opener with an injury.
While the strength of the Panther defense should be the linebackers, there is one problem that Andrews has.
"Our linebackers and running backs are our strengths, but the problem is they're the same kids,'' Andrews said with a smile. "They're great kids and very good players, but I wish we were a little deeper at those positions.''
Lone, Malone, Borkholder and Hildebrandt return to linebacker positions, while Newcomer – who was second on the team in tackles last season – Miller and Mestach are back in the defensive back spots. Miller had three interceptions last season and returned all three for touchdowns, while Mestach led the team with 6.5 sacks.
"One of the things last year's team had was tremendous unity ... they were very close on and off the field,'' Andrews said. "They were probably the closest team I've ever coached and that includes the 2016 state runner-up team. It remains to be seen if this group will have that same kind of camaraderie on the practice field, the bus and in the lockeroom.
NorthWood posted 9-0 regular season record last season and finished at 11-1 after the sectional-final loss to unbeaten Angola.
But Andrews knows not only have the Panthers picked-up perennial power Indianapolis Chatard this season, but the NLC will be filled with land mines for his team to maneuver through.
"I really think the conference is as solid from top to bottom since I've been a coach here ... there is just so much parity,'' Andrews said. "Wawasee and Goshen are getting better, Northridge just has a lot of talent back, Warsaw is in year two (with coach Bart Curtis) and they'll be scary, Plymouth has been pointing to this season for awhile now, Memorial will be fast and all their young kids are a year older now and of course Concord is Concord. It's going to be really tough every week.''
The Panthers have just three NLC home games this fall, Goshen, Wawasee and in week nine, Plymouth.
2018: 11-1 (7-0 in NLC)
Aug. 23: Jimtown
Aug. 30: Ind. Chatard
Sept. 6: at Concord (C)
Sept. 13: Goshen (C)
Sept. 20: Wawasee (C)
Sept. 27: at Northridge (C)
Oct. 4: at Elkhart Memorial (C)
Oct. 11: at Warsaw (C)
Oct. 18: Plymouth (C)