11 Aug BIGELOW: Panthers confident with 22 starters returning
Bigelow finished 2-6 in the 5-2A to miss the playoffs just a year after an 11-2 run that ended in the state quarterfinals. The Panthers had qualified for the postseason three of the previous four years.
But 11 starters return to run Starks’ Wing-T offense, and all 11 are back for the 3-3-5 defensive scheme as well.
“All the guys got that experience last year, plus the junior high went 7-2 and won the conference, and some of them will start,” Starks said. “So we’ll be young again in some positions, but (the sophomores) have got a chance to take some jobs from some kids who started last year.
“We’re real excited about that. Overall, our experience should be a lot better than last year.”
Add to that a 15-member senior class to replace the four from last year, and it’s easy to understand the Panthers’ optimism.
Third-year starter Spencer Langston (6-3, 190) will lead the offense at quarterback. Senior fullback DeAndre Grider (6-0, 170) returns, as does senior tailback Caleb Carter (6-1, 165). Junior Luke Starks (6-4, 190) will go again at tight end, with three seniors set at the wide receiver slots in Justin Sutherland (5-11, 140), Marcus Davie (5-10, 150) and Daymein Choate (6-2, 175).
Three seniors will anchor the offensive line: Anthony Olles (6-0, 175), Tye Kibbons (6-1, 215) and Ronnie Trice (6-0, 230).
“The other two starters could end up being sophomores,” Starks said of the O-line. “Those spots are up in the air.”
Defensively, Kibbons (6-1, 230) will be the anchor at middle linebacker.
“He is probably the best defensive player I’ve coached in all my 19 years of coaching,” Starks said. “He’s the best we’ve had. He’s got a mind for the game.
He’s a real good run-stopper; he’ll fill a hole. He’s a hard-nosed football player. He knows how to go make a tackle. He’s always around the ball.”
The other linebacker spots should be manned by seniors Carter and Jake Thompson (5-11, 200) and junior Lonnie Curtis (5-9, 130).
Seniors Dakota Wiley (6-3, 195), David Story (5-10, 180) and Jarod Shelby (6-2, 215) are set for the defensive line. Sutherland, Davie and junior B.J. Rippeto ((5-11, 145) will be in the defensive backfield.
“They’re getting along, doing things together,” Starks said. “They’re all excited about the coming year.”
But there is a weakness.
“Physical and mental toughness,” Starks said. “Some have one and not the other, but when two-a-days start, you can correct that.”
Magnet Cove joins the 5-2A this fall, dropping from Class 3A. Starks said the Panthers would be the early conference favorite, and with the improved Two Rivers and Conway Christian, as well as Mountain Pine, the league should be competitive.
He does expect his team to return to the playoffs.
“We’re expecting a better year,” he said. “Last year we were actually ahead of Mountain Pine, Conway Christian and Cutter (Morning Star) early. We were not well conditioned. The fact that we were young – we just didn’t finish anything.
“So we’ve done some things this offseason and summer to rectify that situation, and I expect us to finish games just like we start.”
5 Players to Watch:
Tye Kibbons (Sr. MLB/OL)
Spencer Langston (Sr. QB)
Caleb Carter (Sr. TB/LB)
Justin Sutherland (Sr. WR/DB)
DeAndre Grider (Sr. FB).