GREENBRIER: Panthers go from forgotten to favorite

“I’m glad we won, but it sure would be nice for nobody to expect things out of us again,” said Tribble, who came to Greenbrier after 13 years as head coach at Harding University.

“The kids gained some confidence in the program, and all the work you do all winter and spring, everything now, all that means more to them. They’ve experienced the benefits of doing everything.

“All that helps, but we’ve got to get better because we’re not going to slip up on people now. Playing Greenbrier will be a little different for people. We’ve got to work hard, be prepared, be more mentally tough and ready to go.”

Obviously, the Panthers have never quite been in this position before.

“We’ll see if we can handle this role,” Tribble said.

The coach called last year a turnaround season, with players improving steadily throughout. He had a good mixture of young players and veterans contribute, he said.

The turning point was a last-second win over Alma.

“That gave us the confidence that we could win against good people if we just play hard for four quarters and keep our poise,” Tribble said. “The second-round playoff win against Little Rock Christian after being down by more than two touchdowns was another huge win that came in the last seconds.”

Neal Burcham (6-3, 180) at quarterback and Hunter Winston (5-10, 190) at running back formed a powerful offensive punch in ’09. Burcham, just a sophomore, threw for 3,300 yards, including 34 touchdowns, with just seven interceptions. He recorded a 66 percent completion rate. Winston rushed for 1,650 yards and 25 TDs and caught 44 passes for 770 yards and nine touchdowns.

“Was there a more productive back and a more efficient quarterback in the state?” Tribble asked about two of his all-state players.

That duo returns this fall, and if junior Trent Norris comes through at center, Tribble said the line would be another offensive strength. Starters returning are seniors Tom Boles (6-5, 260, all-state as a junior) and Matt Cain (6-2, 270) at the tackles and Chase Lear (6-0, 250) at guard.

Defensively, Tribble said injuries hurt the Panthers last year so that instead of progressing, they regressed after midseason. He hopes a more veteran defense will help in that area this fall. The Panthers’ front four should be very strong with returning starters Cain (all-state as a junior); and Chase Lear (6-0, 250, all-conference as a junior). Junior Ryan Alexander (6-0, 230) returns at defensive end. Junior Paul Easely (5-10, 210) should round out the front four.

Two senior starters are back at outside linebacker — Colt Talley (5-10, 190), all-conference as a junior, and Trent Virden (6-0, 190). Tribble said junior Blake Henderson (5-11, 210) would be a very good middle linebacker. Other returning defensive starters include juniors Reid Cone (5-11, 175) and JoJo Oluokun (5-10, 165) at the corners and Winston at safety.

“We are expecting our defense to be much improved if we can stay healthy,” Tribble said. “A.J. Boyd, Justin Pricer and Tom Boles will provide competition and depth on the defensive line. All have increased their strength and quickness. The linebacking corps should be improved and have some depth with junior Gavin Roberts, who missed last year with a foot injury, and Chris Gilpatrick who moved in from Kansas.

“The secondary also should be better with Cone and Oluokun at corners, with help from senior Parker Hutchinson and Austin Fischer. We hope to develop our new safeties so Winston doesn’t have to play defense all the time. The development of junior Jimbo Pitts, senior Dillon Day and a couple of athletic sophomores is crucial to our defense.”

The Panthers are inexperienced at receiver, having graduated three of their top four, but Tribble said spring practice and the 7-on-7 season would help identify and develop people there.

“We believe we will have a good group and will have some depth at receiver,” he said. “Reid Cone, JoJo Oluokun, Trent Virden, Scott Cavin, Austin Fischer, Seth Peters, Ty Davis, Parker Hutchinson, Jimbo Pitts, Spenser Russaw, Blake Henderson and Chris Gilpatrick all will battle for playing time at receiver.”

At this point, depth is a weakness on both sides of the football.

Class 6A Benton replaces Heber Springs on the Panthers’ non-conference schedule. In the 5A-West, Huntsville replaces Central Arkansas Christian, which moves to the Southwest.

“The conference order is changed, so it will continue to be extremely challenging and interesting every week,” Tribble said.

But the Panthers enter 2010 still on a high from ’09.

“After a year like that, it’s so much easier to get your kids to be at workouts, even though this crew, one of the reasons they were so successful last year is they jumped in after that 1-9 season and went to work really good,” he said. “Their attitude and confidence are better.

“I feel like we’re ahead in some areas coming out of spring ball than we were a year ago, but we may be behind in some other areas. I hope it all adds up to good, but you never know. That’s why you’ve got to line up and play.”

5 Players to Watch:

Neal Burcham (Sr. QB)
Hunter Winston (Sr. RB)
Tom Boles (Sr. OL)
Colt Talley (LB/RB)
Matt Cain (Sr. DL/OL)


Sept. 3    Beebe
Sept. 10    at Mayflower
Sept. 17    at Benton
Sept. 24    Harrison*
Oct. 1    at Huntsville*
Oct. 8    at Morrilton*
Oct. 15    Siloam Springs*
Oct. 22    Alma*
Oct. 28     at Greenwood*
Nov. 4    Vilonia*
* 5A-West conference game